Verizon uses race to make you look.

Advertising deconstructed.
April 26 2004 2:44 PM

Customers Like Me

Verizon uses race to make you look.

Family-oriented commercial programming
Family-oriented commercial programming

The spot: We glimpse the bustling Elliott family amid their evening routine. Dad's e-mailing some pictures. Mom's chatting on the phone. All of this made possible by Verizon. In related spots, the Davis and Sandoval families exhibit an equally remarkable thirst for Verizon services. (Click here to see the ads.)

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

This Elliotts ad immediately caught my eye, for two different reasons. 1) Because it feels so different. Laid-back, low-key, character-based—more like a sitcom than an ad. (With those sassy kids, that incorrigible dog, and mom yelling out "Tom!" in pretend exasperation, you might well think you've stumbled upon a midseason replacement show.) 2) Because the Elliott spot, which features a Caucasian dad and a Latino mom, offers an interesting peek at how ethnicity gets used in ads these days.

But first, the laid-back mood. These ads have in fact been referred to as "sitcom-mercials." And all the elements are there: the opening graphic ("Verizon presents The Elliotts"); the establishing shot of suburban house and yard; the well-meaning, doltish dad who's the butt of all jokes; the adorable kids. It's every family sitcom you've ever seen, with one key difference: You don't get laughs and lessons. You get bundled DSL and unlimited calling.

Why make a sitcom-mercial? I asked Amy Rubenstein, Verizon vice president for brand management. She says there are two main goals, and the first is simply to entertain. These ads are meant to feel fresh, with their sitcom tone and their appealing, mixed-race cast. Rubenstein says you're less likely to "tune these ads out, or say, 'I've seen this before.' "

The second goal is more complex. Rubenstein says that the Elliott household will serve as a "consistent brand platform." Rather than launching new products from scratch—with a battle each time to build awareness ("here's the new calling plan FROM VERIZON")—they'll just slip the new product into the Elliotts' daily lives. Cheaper calling plan? Mom Elliott loves it! Better Internet features? Dad's a big fan!

Verizon gets a brand icon (the likable Elliott family) that's also a familiar and comfortable setting in which to introduce new products. It keeps everything under one roof (literally, though fictionally) so as a viewer, you link Verizon's services together in your mind. Which is the crucial concept for a communications giant. They desperately want you to buy a whole suite of their products, not pick and choose your phone/mobile/Internet out of a grab-bag of providers.

So there you have the basic strategy. But perhaps the more intriguing thing going on is the use of ethnicity. Along with the Elliotts (a mixed-race family), there are separate series of ads with the Davises (African-American) and the Sandovals (a Spanish-speaking family, for the Spanish-language market). All three employ the sitcom-mercial format, with the establishing shot of a house. (The Elliotts' is biggest, the Davis home most modest.) They even share a theme tune.

Well, almost share it. It's been tweaked for each different family. The Davises get a fatter bass while the Sandovals are met with a flurry of cowbells and Latin percussion. It turns out the three campaigns were created—from similar briefs—by three different agencies. Each agency is a specialist in its chosen demographic, so we get three finely tuned pitches to three different targets.

For instance, the Davis spots are full of one-liners ("It's off the hook!"; "Put it back on the hook!"), punctuated by mocking bass riffs. Meanwhile, the Elliotts and Sandovals use strictly situational humor. (Though the Sandoval dad is the broadest character of all—obese and prone to ridiculous outfits.) Also, the Davis family alone is allowed to directly address the camera. There's one Bernie Mac-ish scene where the Davis dad breaks down the fourth wall (to complain about disrespect).

Oddly, only the Davises ever mention Verizon by name or talk explicitly about the services they're using. I asked Rubenstein why this was. She said that by not mentioning the brand, the Elliotts spots might have "longer shelf-life" and "sustainability." She then seemed poised to explain why the Davises do mention the brand but suddenly balked. I've no doubt something in their market research convinced Verizon to do it this way.

But most intriguing of all to me is the mixed-race casting of the Elliott family. Because while the Davises and Sandovals are narrowly targeted to specific demographics, the Elliotts are Verizon's "mass market family," as Rubenstein puts it. They're meant to appeal to everyone, nationwide, as a flagship symbol of Verizon's brand. Yet they're pretty non-traditional by the standards of gargantuan ad buys. I've seen a few other ethnicity-blind, mass-market spots. (A recent Volkswagen ad comes to mind, in which the characters were all South–Asian.) But I don't think I've seen a mixed-race family as the focus of a large, long-term campaign. And certainly not a mixed-race family where the dad's so defiantly white-bread and race is so beside the point.

Of course, nothing's really beside the point when it comes to a big-budget ad. Verizon is using race as a marketing tool but in a way we haven't seen much before. The casting here isn't intended to pander to one specific ethnic audience. Nor is it a grudging corporate concession. (Look, we put a black guy in our ad! Way back in the corner! Not speaking!)

In the Elliotts campaign, race is 1) an attention-getting gimmick and 2) a way to lend the brand a modern, distinctive vibe. This is a delicate (and slightly duplicitous) balancing act, because No. 1 relies on the fact that a mixed-race family is still sort of a big deal while No. 2 relies on Verizon treating it as no big deal at all.

Grade: B. This ad made me stop and pay attention. And I'm a sucker for PC utopias. I'm actually looking forward to more Elliotts "episodes."

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