The Price of Learning to Compete

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One summer while I was a teenager, my family was coming back from a summer vacation through Hershey, Pa. We swung off the highway to go through the town, just to see what it was like.

The news at the top of the hour on the local radio station was that a research study had uncovered that chocolate did not cause zits. This was naturally perceived by my brother and I as good news. Then, the announcer disclosed that the study, of course, had been sponsored by Hershey Foods, the candy-bar maker its ownself.

Flash forward to May 2, 2007. The news release headline read: “The Choice is Clear: Comcast Tops Satellite in HD Picture Quality Survey.” The release said “Frank N. Magid Associates, a leading research consulting organization, conducted the survey; Accenture, a management and technology consulting company, oversaw the technical aspects of the test; and Loeb & Loeb, a national law firm, provided legal guidance on the survey process.” What it didn’t say: Comcast commissioned the study.

Two-and-a-half weeks later, DirecTV sued Comcast for false advertising and deceptive trade practices.

Such is life in a competitive marketplace. You may think you’ve got a great idea for countering the attacks of the other guy. You may have retained the biggest and best names in the business for conducting a piece of work. But can you really claim it’s an independent piece of research when you’re paying the bills? Yes, you can claim it. But the reader — or listener — is going to have a hard time believing the results are real and unvarnished.

This kind of exploration of the edge of credibility in pressing one’s business interests is not unexpected. As Joe Rooney, the chief marketing officer of Cox Communications pointed out, two of the three main industries now colliding in the provision of multichannel video, voice and Internet services are, in their roots, monopolies. The telephone industry was one company until 1982. Until satellite-TV broadcasters came along in the early ’90s, cable-system operators pretty much had local markets to themselves, in providing large numbers of television signals to subscribers.

So it’s not surprising that some efforts at promoting one’s business in a competitive world fail the reality test. Or strain credulity.

A local favorite, for now, is Bobby Choice, the character recently created by AT&T to promote its U-Verse television service as it gets rolled out in Norwalk, Conn.

He winks at you from the top of www.bobbychoice.com and he has a glint in his smile. His backdrop is SoNo, a refurbished harborside part of the town that now is its magnet for Saturday-night eaters, drinkers and partiers.

His site is made out to look like it was built out of the same social-networking cloth as MySpace. He talks in the slang of youth (“yo, peeps,” “totally sick”). But he’s a middle-aged guy with a receding hairline.

Each competitor is trying to find its symbolic soul in a digital and video world, where you are either yourself or your avatar. DirecTV has Doc from Back to the Future, in effect. Cox has Digital Max, who looks like he comes from Buzz Lightyear’s family tree. Comcast has Spider-Man (sort of) and his roommate.

There will be plenty of times when these characters cross lines that put their corporate forebears into court, again, for what is said or unsaid. You can’t bend the truth, just because the character you use to represent yourself isn’t real.

In fact, at some point, whatever the latest national accounting standards-setting body is is likely to command that litigation expenses start being ascribed to the functional areas — like marketing — that incur them in the first place. And income statements will reflect the change.

In the meantime, you can pretty much figure that the companies have figured out whether there’s sufficient return in pushing the limit of their claims by calculating the new subscriptions that they produce and deducting the expense.

Plus, the new media, bless their heart, have the advantage of being trackable and measurable. Cox, for instance, is a big proponent of direct-response marketing, online and offline, because it can code its efforts and determine with great precision what messages (and characters) work and are believable.

Maybe marketing isn’t as easy or low-cost as it used to be. To be sure, there’ll be lots more forms of media to figure out; and guerrilla marketing tactics that could backfire.

But just make sure the notches get on the measurement stick. It’s the price of learning to compete.

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