Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Ma Bell’s Makeover

Hey, kids, happy 2006! Hope your New Year’s Eve was rockin’.

If you surfed around the TV dial that night, going from Dick Clark (sadly propped up like an ailing soviet leader in a cold remote studio) to Regis (ugh) to Carson (slightly better, which is scary), chances are you caught one of these bright, shiny commercials unveiling the new AT&T.

The company has a new logo: The iconic, super-famous blue and white globe designed by Saul Bass 24 years ago has been souped-up, made three-dimensional and Internet-friendly. And the Ts and the A are now lowercase, so they seem more open, kid-like and less threatening. That’s probably good, given all the troubles that old Ma had gotten herself into in recent years.

(Though the former baby bell, SBC, bought Momma, he didn’t throw her from the train, dragging her old telegraph machine behind her—he took her name!)

Certainly, the ads announcing the merger are as beautifully produced as anything out there, probably because they seem like an amalgam of everything out there. The spots are reminiscent of various vignettes shown over the years in visually sophisticated work for AT&T, IBM, ITT, Intel, etc.—any company trying to show its global reach and techno-prowess.

There’s also a new tagline, “Your world. Delivered.” In a press release about the campaign, AT&T CEO Edward E. Whitacre Jr. says, “The new AT&T will lead the industry in delivering the next generation of integrated solutions that deliver on the promise of virtually anywhere, anytime connectivity.”

Right off the bat, here’s the problem: We are already drowning in offers of “integrated solutions” and “anytime connectivity,” and we have no idea what to make of them. Of course, I can appreciate how difficult and complicated (and ironic) it must be to bring together a simple message of connectivity and integrated solutions from two very separate and massive corporations. To add to the layers and loops, the work also comes from two distinct agencies: GSD&M, which handled SBC’s consumer advertising, and mcgarrybowen, which had provided the B-to-B.

After all that, the work is great-looking, and seems deeply positioned and researched, as well as carefully articulated. That’s the trouble—maybe it’s too carefully. In their attempt to convey the familiar and make everybody comfortable (what are you going to hit me with now, phone company?), one of the spots resembles the feel-good ads used in Reagan-era political ads.

Granted, there’s no appearance by a guy in a flannel shirt shaking hands in the two spots that debuted, but in “Spread the Word,” we do get a lot of morning in America. There’s a split-second image of a waitress pouring coffee in an old-fashioned coffee shop (no Starbucks here). There are farmers riding tractors (hello, Budweiser from years ago), cowboys galloping on the range (Brokeback connectivity?) and a politically correct array of whites, blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans. The most unsettling image—a man’s giant, aerodynamic head on a giant flat screen in a conference room—suggests the famous Apple 1984 commercial, if it were updated by a Japanese car company making fun of German precision. For good measure, there’s also a woman signing to a colleague in that very same futuristic conference room.

“Eclipse,” which is more interesting, has a British Airways-like obsession with showing our globe from outer space. (There’s an obvious link with the logo, but still, why do we see so many spinning globes in ads? Maybe just to set us at ease—yup, there it is, still going.) This icy, ground-control-to-major-Bob-ish shot has two distinct beams of light hitting the globe. Then we get an artfully photographed, complicated play of light and shadow, with aerial shots passing over Shanghai, the Egyptian pyramids, downtown office buildings, etc. Inevitably, this sort of flying shot leads to Spielberg-like images of crane-necked people looking up, which always suggests to me that they are awaiting aliens or giant tripods. But I like the voiceover; it talks about two kinds of companies, “those who change the world, and those who deliver,” and that they “rarely join together”—except for now, with the new AT&T. The last shot is of a partial eclipse. This is beautiful, but got me to wondering, who is darkening whom?

The music throughout is “All Around the World” by Oasis, which works, and even becomes a hypnotic hook. Two other spots will be shown only in SBC’s old territory. One shows a company truck speeding through a monsoon to a customer’s house in the woods. It’s actually a much better-directed version of a visiting nurse commercial. The second is more aerial photography, to show how “block by block, street by street,” the company will “deliver our world.”

As for these spots, obviously the goal wasn’t to be revolutionary, but rather to remind us that the brand is still here, familiar and approachable. They succeed in that, but at the same time, they don’t say much. Why couldn’t they shake things up more? We already get enough “deliveries in our world” to make our heads spin.


“eclipse,” “behind the wheel”


gsd&M, Austin, tExAS

Creative directors

John Trahar, Russell Lambrect, Roy Spence

Executive Producers

Paul Golubovich, Brian Carmody, Patrick Milling Smith


Filip Engstrom

Production co.

Smuggler, LA

“Spread the Word”


Rodgers Townsend

Creative directors

Tom Hudder, Mike McCormick


Tom Townsend

Art director

Tom Hudder

Executive producer

Paul Golubovich


Michael Bay