The religion of wireless: A TV ad battle to inspire, empower users

Verizon's 'Rule the Air' campaign faces off against AT&T's 'Rethink Possible'

Recent TV advertising campaigns from the nation's two largest wireless carriers have put a premium on trying to empower us and inspire us about innovation, almost as if wireless communication had become a kind of religion.

As such, the "Rule the Air" ads that started in June from Verizon Wireless and the "Rethink Possible" campaign first launched in April from AT&T are clear branding-focused efforts and less tactical (plus decidedly less combative) than the 3G map ads that dominated TV in the fall of 2009.

"I think [the ads] show a clear maturity in the market with mobile services and devices having moved from toys to tools," said Phillip Redman, an analyst at Gartner Inc. of the branding campaigns. "Choosing a service or device is a lifestyle choice. It defines who you are -- as a business person, student, artist, etc."

Redman said the latest campaigns were a clear a departure from the 2009 advertisement bickering between Verizon and AT&T over who had a broader, more effective 3G network, which itself developed out of a legal skirmish now largely forgotten.

"Carriers are hopefully moving away from differentiating on price and quality and moving on to deeper emotional and life goals revolving around innovation and self empowerment," Redman said.

So far, there haven't been a lot of snide blogs about either ad campaign or even any "SNL" satirical reviews, which might be a tribute to how much the ads are widely appreciated for being smart, thought-provoking and different.

Most of the ads are far from wonky technology discourses and some talk about how a whole society can potentially function more effectively with good wireless services and the resulting good communication.

For example, the following is the script from "Prejudice," an ad in the empowerment-centered "Rule the Air" series from Verizon. It features young black and white women talking directly at the camera and is posted along with several others on a special Verizon Web site.

"Air has no prejudice. It does not carry the opinions of a man faster than those of a woman. It does not filter out an idea because I'm 16 and not 30," the ad says. "Air is unaware if I'm black or white and wouldn't care if it knew. So it stands to reason my ideas will be powerful, if they are wise, infectious... if they are worthy."

"If my thoughts have flawless delivery, I can lead the army that will follow. Rule the air. Verizon."

In contrast, AT&T has been at its "Rethink Possible" campaign two months longer than Verizon's, and continues to air two spots.

One of the two, "Birthday," features Gene Wilder singing the song "Pure Imagination" from the 1971 movie "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" to conjure up childhood imagination and creativity.

That ad and others in the campaign are gathered on a special site, "The Inspiration Room," and also at AT&T's site.

Here's the entire script, starting with Wilder's singing: "We'll begin with a spin, traveling in the world of my creation. What we'll see will defy explanation.' Remember when you were five when anything was possible? Happy fifth birthday again. 'Come with me and you'll be in a world of pure imagination. Rethink possible. AT&T".

The other AT&T ad that continues to air is called "Ripple Effect." It traces the fictitious 57th president of the United States back to his parents' first meeting aboard a train through a series of quick flashbacks.

Their first meeting is made possible because his father was able to quickly send a message via his phone to have his ticket quickly changed so he can be seated near his future wife aboard the train. A title and narrator conclude the ad with: "Any second could be the second... AT&T, the nation's fastest 3G network."

Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesman, said the company has been pleased enough with the "Rethink Possible" ads to continue airing them for many weeks. "They are meant to show how people can rethink what's possible in their lives using our technology to stay in touch with people and manage their lives," Siegel said.

"It's brand advertising that's trying to identify AT&T with something very positive and yet very simple and say that our technology on a variety of fronts can help you do things," he said.

After the barrage of 3G map ads, which were intentionally tactical, Siegel said AT&T recognized it "needed to do something inspirational and help consumers to see what is possible to make their lives richer, better, more satisfying and fun."

Brenda Raney, a spokeswoman for Verizon, said "'Rule the Air' is meant to describe how our network empowers our customers... It's all about transmission and how our customers use our network to do what they want, when they want [and] staying connected to what matters most to them."

Raney, too, said Verizon saw a different purpose in "Rule the Air" when compared to the 3G map ads of last year. "'Rule the Air' recognizes that quality network service is what people want and need to manage their lives," she said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at  @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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