Originally created 02/22/98

Technology focus of newest ads



ATLANTA -- To Tyler Webb, the likable, sometimes-bumbling but always-helpful BellSouth Corp. worker, the telecommunications company has added new advertising faces.

In new commercials emphasizing technology and aimed at shedding old-line phone company images, a doctor guides a team through neurosurgery and a barefoot country-music star belts out her latest hit: "Did I Shave My Legs For This?"

The $20 million BellSouth has committed to the campaign, which began airing during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, underlines the growing need for self-promotion as the telecommunications industry becomes increasingly competitive in the deregulation era.

BellSouth battles associations with "Ma Bell" and the local phone company as staid and stodgy, and its research indicated customers tended not to credit BellSouth with technological advances.

"In the telecommunications business, people want to go with who's going to lead them into the future," said Laura Ries, a marketing strategist based in Roswell, an Atlanta suburb. "Trying to be seen as the high-tech leader is going to be difficult for the Baby Bells."

The new campaign, which claims BellSouth has "the neighborhood whiz kids," goes after such impressions by presenting the company as "cutting-edge contemporary," said William Pate, BellSouth's vice president for advertising and public relations.

"This a little unexpected for BellSouth," Pate said. "We want people to pop up their heads and say, 'I didn't realize BellSouth was involved in this."'

The first two commercials take different approaches in trying to demonstrate how technological innovations affect everyday lives.

Deana Carter, 32, who burst into country music stardom barely a year ago with "Strawberry Wine," and humorously voices country-style feminism in "Did I Shave My Legs For This?" sings in a commercial that demonstrates "metronet." The digital fiber-optic video network is used by The Nashville Network to air live TV performances from Nashville clubs.

The other commercial, depicting a doctor guiding a surgical team by videoconference from overseas as the patient's parents wait anxiously, highlights the use of technology for "telemedicine."

The technology commercials have this line -- "It wasn't AT&T or MCI. It was BellSouth."

The rival companies have hard-hitting advertising aimed at influencing deregulation policy in Washington. For example, MCI print ads accuse "the Bell monopolies" of "abusing consumers" who want to switch from Bell local service.

But Pate, who joined BellSouth from MCI, said "that's inside the Beltway" and there are no plans in its home region for the kind of attack ads such as the AT&T vs. MCI "get it in writing" commercials of a few years ago.

"We want to differentiate, not disparage," Pate said. "We're not interested in engaging in an advertising war."

The "whiz kids" commercials, part of a campaign that includes print ads, quizzes for students and bumper stickers, joins the "Chatsford Stories" campaign that began last summer in BellSouth's nine-state region.

That campaign, with the theme "Nobody knows a neighbor like a neighbor" emphasizes "in a nice way" what Ms. Ries said is the regional Bells' strength -- familiarity with their customers. Cincinnati Bell, for example, uses the theme: "People you know you can rely on."

The $20 million Chatsford Stories campaign features Webb, a composite small-town character who visits schools and businesses to show how BellSouth can help. The fictional town of Chatsford also has characters such as a young woman who uses caller identification to screen phone calls from a series of blind-date losers.

The Tyler Webb series has been joined in heavily Hispanic South Florida by "Andres," who roams the Spanish-speaking Villa Charla on behalf of BellSouth.