A Savvy, Simple Way to Sell Phone Service

At this writing, barely 12 hours after the first missile attack, we have achieved state-of-the-art War TV. Flipping around the dial is as surreal as it gets: A CBS correspondent describes a “beautiful starry night” in Kuwait City; on NBC there’s talk of a “decapitation attack”; on Fox, Scuds being intercepted by Patriots; on CNN, word of troops sleeping in chemical suits with boots on during a heavy artillery barrage in northern Kuwait. At the same time, on local New York station WPIX, all eyes are on one guy fighting until the bitter end. He is never going to give up. That’s not Saddam-it’s Jerry Springer in full throttle, asking a full-sized gal if she’s ever “had sex with a woman before.”

What war is good for is a debate for the ages. But from the superficial, myopic lens of our industry, war is hell on ad schedules. The standard practice is to drop all advertising for the first few days of coverage and then to vet content carefully to see whether it’s appropriate. But obviously no brand wants to sponsor a war, and it’s pretty near impossible to tell what will constitute appropriate content during the course of the conflict. Tone is such a delicate, evanescent thing: I watched some of the work produced just after 9/11, which reduced me to tears at the time, and now it just seems manipulative and morbid.

That’s why this new regional AT&T campaign, for that ancient thing now known as a land line, seems amazingly contemporary and prescient: It’s open, fluid and so flexible that it allows for up-to-the-minute issues to be plugged in easily. It’s also easy and cheap to produce, essentially consisting of title cards and editing. The only real expense is the music (which is crucial to setting the emotional tone), and in this “Talk is good” campaign, that too is pitch-perfect.

The “Big Issues” spot brings on life’s major questions: Cloning? War? Prayer in schools? Each phrase gets its own card and is spelled out in capital letters, like shouting in e-mail. But the question mark at the end of the phrases changes the shout to an open invitation to hear the other side. Behind each title card is a stock picture (fire is particularly apt for war). The titles move so quickly that the words become almost hypnotic. The colors and caps give way to black-and-white title cards, which, in upper- and lowercase, take care of the selling business in a fast and subtle way: “Opinions may separate us. Miles don’t have to. That’s why AT&T’s local calling area is larger …” The music is haunting: Sinead O’Connor’s “Thank You for Hearing Me,” sung gently and movingly by David Crosby.

A total of 18 spots are customized to local markets-on brilliantly colored backgrounds, the cards spell out issues of local relevance. It’s so unglobal that it’s fascinating to see the differences between regions, even between different parts of a single state. For example, California requires three different spots, covering widely divergent issues. Among San Francisco’s issues are dog-leash crackdowns, meerkat babies and medicinal pot, whereas Sacramento is worrying about smoking, rezoning and fish in Folsom Dam. (The music for those spots is “Home,” sung by Sheryl Crow.) Ohio has two different spots (and revives the Leonard Bernstein song “Why Oh Why Ohio”). In Dayton, the concerns are casinos and traffic, while Toledo is anguishing over killer bees, low lake levels and turnpike defibrillators. And I note for the record that Lansing, Mich., is talking about garbage from Canada.

With all of our techno-superior media, it’s charming and heartwarming to see AT&T acknowledging issues close to one’s own home or heart. The overall effect is almost therapeutic. AT&T reached; we feel touched.

This “Talk is good” campaign is an essential make-under for advertising-the production is so pared down and the words used are so top of mind that it seems honest. By not aggressively pushing anything, or taking a rigid stand, it provides calm at a time of uncertainty. (Despite the campaign’s relevance, AT&T announced at press time last Thursday that the work-and all its advertising and telemarketing-would be suspended for at least 24 hours and reassessed after that.) It tells us, in form and content, that even if we don’t have any control, we still have the ability to adapt. And that’s about all anybody can promise these days.