by Tom Kaneshige

AT&T Loses to Verizon in Ad Game

Nov 06, 2009
MobileSmall and Medium Business

Verizon delivers creative comparative advertising, and AT&T counters with stuffy lawsuit.

Americans love comparative advertising. The nastier, the better. Apple’s “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ad campaign is simply brilliant. The bitter contest between Pepsi and Coke continues to entertain each new generation. Today, we have AT&T vs. Verizon.

Problem is, AT&T doesn’t know how to play the game. The number one rule in comparative advertising is that you never cry foul because it just validates your competitor’s claims and makes you look like a sore loser. No one wants to buy products or services from a loser.

(Another rule is that comparative advertising doesn’t play well in some European countries and may even be illegal.)

Here’s a little back story:

AT&T used to be the top dog in the wireless carrier market only a year ago, with Verizon number two. Verizon took the top spot when it bought AllTel in January this year. Yet AT&T still acts like a conservative market leader, and Verizon continues to be the scrappy contender.

The mindsets are significant because most comparative advertising comes from the scrappy contender targeting the market leader, like car rental company Avis did to the Hertz Corporation with its “We try harder” motto in 1967. Verizon’s television ad showed two maps comparing its 3G coverage with AT&T’s much maligned 3G coverage.

Verizon’s ad also took a swipe at Apple’s iPhone, which competes with smartphones that Verizon carries. The ad’s catchphrase is “There’s a map for that,” which plays off of iPhone’s “There’s an app for that.”

All in good fun, right? Yet AT&T countered with a lawsuit. That’s like throwing in a red challenge flag for a ticky-tacky foul in a football game when you’re losing by 30 points. Consumers want to see creative competition, not a lawsuit.

Worse, AT&T’s lawsuit didn’t even claim that its 3G coverage is better than what Verizon’s ad showed. AT&T called attention to its lack of 3G coverage areas by saying that there’s some coverage, just not 3G.

An excerpt from the lawsuit: “Consumers are interpreting the white or blank space on the maps to mean that AT&T customers who are not in an AT&T ‘3G’ coverage area have no wireless coverage whatsoever, and therefore have no ability to use their wireless devices for any purposes in vast areas of the country.”

All of this has made AT&T look old and stuffy—not a good image for a company competing in the dynamic, creative world of the smartphone.

For Verizon, Christmas came early. “This is a junk lawsuit. It has no merit,” Verizon rep Jeffrey Nelson told Adweek. “It’s surprising that rather than defend the ‘blue’ hot spots on their 3G map, our competitor instead focuses on their white spaces.”

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