Verizon's new "Rule the Air" campaign is a mess. But, by design, it's an attractive and racially diverse one. That's precisely what ad agency McGarryBowen, which Ad Age voted 2009's agency of the year*, had in mind. The company seems to have ditched its "Can you hear me now?" slogan for a sly effort at convincing its users they actually have a foothold in the roiling debate over broadband access.
Verizon launched its new campaign earlier this summer, and it's clearly aimed toward younger users, mostly those of color. One ad called "Prejudice" debuted in July and features a racially diverse cast of young women talking about how Verizon's wireless service allows them full ownership of their voices and ideas.
It's ironic, given Verizon's recently released joint policy proposal with Google. In the two-page proposal, both companies outline a legislative framework that leaves the door wide open for network operators like Verizon to block or interfere with any mobile traffic they desire. As Nilay Patel at Endgadget pointed out when the proposal was released, it's a big deal because "it's pretty obvious that wireless broadband will be the defining access technology for the next generation of devices and services."
So we took a look at Verizon's 30 second July ad and examined its claims, phrase by phrase:
1. Air has no prejudice.
This, of course, is true. Except in the case of the air that Verizon owns, which is certainly prejudiced against those who can't afford to be heard on it.
Verizon claims to operate "America's largest and most reliable wireless network," covering approximately 290 million people. In 2008 it had the second largest revenue of all wireless companies at nearly $50 billion. Wireless smart phones, including the Google-operated Droid, have taken off considerably in the past two years, which has surely increased the company's total wireless revenue.
The air that Verizon owns and profits from generally costs mobile users upwards of at least $60 per month, not including data (wireless Internet) plans, monthly insurance, and taxes. For instance, take the company's hottest phone on the market: the Google-operated Android. Let's start with the Droid Incredible. If you sign a two-year contract and purchase the phone online, it costs $199.99. Then go and purchase the cheapest available calling plan: 450 minutes for $30 per month. But this is a Droid, and we want Internet. Mobile Internet, after all, is supposed to catapult blacks and foreign-born Latinos across the digital divide. So let's get a smartphone data package. The cheapest one allows you to surf the Web and check email for an additional $30 each month (text messages not included). Then there's text messages, equipment protection, visual voicemail ($2 -- so you can see all those messages you don't wanna answer on that shiny Droid screen!). That's $283.96 right out the door. And each month from here on out, you're looking at a monthly bill of $83.97, not including taxes.
But look at the bright side. If you're new to Verizon and sign a new two-year contract, at least they'll waive the activation fee.
2. It does not carry the opinions of a man faster than a woman.
Back in 2006, the Economic Policy Institute found that while the gender divide online had shrunk significantly, it hadn't disappeared completely. Women are still more likely to have slower dial-up services.
But Kelsey Wallace at Bitch makes an even bigger point about using bootleg feminist principles to drive corporate revenue:
This whole "empower yourself by embracing our brand" idea is nothing new, of course. (If you want to read more on that topic, Naomi Klein's No Logo includes a great discussion about the way big corporations appropriate rebellion in order to increase customer loyalty.) However, Verizon is taking things to a level of faux-empowerment I've rarely seen.
3. It does not filter out an idea because I'm 16 and not 30.
Interesting, because the last I checked, youth unemployment was at an all time high, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rates for black and brown teens were nearly double those of whites. Not sure which 16-year-old's can shell out close to $100/month for a cell phone bill.
That's not to say that young people aren't an integral part of building wireless broadband networks. Young users of color are already phoning across the digital divide, but that's certainly without the help of mobile carriers.
4. Air is unaware if I'm black (says a white girl) or white (says a black girl). And it wouldn't care if it knew.
5. 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.
Yes, they went there. Ok, so let's put aside for a second the fact that Verizon's been one of the leading corporate voices against net neutrality over the past five years. Net neutrality, of course, is the long-held principle that people-driven ideas are what drives the Web and, thus, that the Web should be free of interference from network owners, like Verizon.
Let's look at what "flawless delivery" means. Ideally, it means that users get the service they're paying for. But a Federal Communications Commission report that came out last week concluded that the complete opposite is true: broadband users get, on average, only a dismal 50 percent of the speed they pay for. For more, see Nate Anderson's breakdown of broadband speeds at Law & Disorder.
*An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the year Ad Agency voted McGarryBowen agency of the year.