Wrong number

Bell’s baffling commercials may say more about the telco’s mindset than it knows.

Marketing Magazine, May 24, 1999   

I confess to initial bafflement at Bell Canada’s current commercials. I just didn’t get them. I couldn’t figure out how they were conceived, what they were meant to convey, or who they were aimed at.


Used to be Bell didn’t need to advertise. Bell was all there was. “Bell Canada” and “telephone” were synonymous. The only reason to advertise would have been to distinguish the phone from other means of communication.


Then the long-distance business was belatedly opened to competition. Bell figured it should get in the game. That imperative increased as AT&T and Sprint Canada began poaching Bell customers. But when Bell tried to distinguish itself from the new competition, its efforts presented symptoms of monopoly hangover. About the best it could offer as a message was “Come on — we’re the real phone company, right? Why would you go anywhere else?”


That strategy reached its zenith with those “guess-how-many-people switched-back-to-us” spots. That campaign, in turn, reached its nadir with the ad featuring the post-collegiate freebooter cell-phoning grandpa from the beach at Dieppe to say thanks. I’m cynical, but I know I’m not the only person who expected that commercial to end with a comparison between the number of people who switched back to Bell and the number of Canadian soldiers killed on that beach.


Bell used to have its advertising spread among a selection of agencies. But as competition has intensified and the number of phone-related products has multiplied, it’s consolidated those disparate efforts in one account at Cossette Communication-Marketing. The first branding campaign under that arrangement has given us the baffling spots we’re puzzling over now.


Initially, I figured the enigmatic quality was deliberate. All kinds of advertisers start a campaign with too little information in order to intrigue us and ensure our continuing to follow the next chapter hoping for some kind of explanation. I thought that was what the initial spot with the two Bell bozos and the Italian guy was aiming for. (“Two guys see a helicopter hovering; one says to the other, ‘Must be out of gas.’ “)


Bad joke, minimal connection to the product, purpose obscure and really unattractive in terms of palette, shooting, art direction and casting. Turns out that was the high point of the campaign. Since then, things have just gotten dorkier, increasingly inane and more annoying. Next came the “twisted pair” standing around pointlessly in an absent family’s kitchen. (There’s a use for the phone: two morons have broken into your house while you’re at work to orally abuse your condiments. Call 911 and have them arrested.) All the crapulence of the initial spot seemed to have been cranked up, and the writing and acting were even stupider.


What was Bell thinking? What was Cossette trying to achieve? It seemed as though this whole campaign was an elaborate revenge scheme on Cossette’s part. Like George Metesky, who blew up New York City mailboxes because Consolidated Edison screwed up his electrical bill, Cossette seemed to be working to lash out over some slight, as though it was trying to pay back Bell for some sin it wasn’t even aware it had committed.


But that was too easy a diagnosis, and it required too much unlikely orchestrated conspiracy nuttiness to be applicable or make any sense.


Instead, deeper analysis indicates this whole campaign is an admission that Bell, like its perpetually adolescent spokesdoofuses, is totally clueless. The two guys in the commercials represent a common stage in many people’s development. They’re out of college, they’ve got some book-learning, but they’re still devoid of any kind of common sense or street smarts. They can interact in a high school cafeteria, but put them with adults in the real world and they’re frightened, lost and hopeless. The only way they can view grown-ups is with a kind of anxious bemusement. As a result, their disaffected pose is a way of acting out their anxieties.


Acting out is the only way they can say what they feel: “Mom, Dad — I know I should be more adequately prepared to take my place among the adults. But I have no idea how to do that. Look at the way I’m dressed, for Chrissake. I look like an overgrown eight-year-old with a three-day wino-trim beard. Help!”


And there’s Bell’s whimpered cri de coeur in those Cossette spots. Just like the spoiled post-teens, they want independence. They can recognize it, but they can’t achieve or sustain it. Having a monopoly is a lot like being a kid. You figure that big customer base or your parents will always take care of you. Neither one will, of course. Seen as an admission of its terror at the prospect of having to grow up, these otherwise god-awful commercials are awkwardly, oddly pathetic. Almost touching.