AT&T's misguided plan for its ampersand.

AT&T's misguided plan for its ampersand.

AT&T's misguided plan for its ampersand.

Advertising deconstructed.
June 7 2004 1:36 PM

Castles Made of Ampersands

AT&T's misguided new campaign.

still from AT&T ad
AT&T tries to face the music

The Spot: Two faces are fused together to create a sort of split-screen, multicultural mugshot. We cut to a giant ampersand. Then back to more fused faces. Then back to the ampersand. The demi-faces sing, again and again, their endless refrain: "Come together!" (Click here, and then on the TV ad called "Anthem—Faces" to see the spot.)

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.

AT&T is in trouble. Its long-distance business is shrinking. Its stock has lately tanked. And this new commercial sucks.

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The ad is part of a $200 million campaign that's meant to jump-start the AT&T brand. Sadly, the whole thing is an ill-conceived mess.

Let's start with the melting pot of faces. This approach is a variation on something I call the "Wonder of Humanity" spot. (This—almost parodically academic— site posts a great collection of such ads, deconstructing "the serial montage" and "the myth of communicative transcendence.") The key component with any WOH spot is a procession of racially diverse faces. They stare directly into the camera, and convey to us that their lives are made better with the help of a multinational services company.

Sometimes these spots will cut away from the faces (often to a skyscraper or bullet train), and sometimes the faces give monologues. Either way, the central visual concept is high-contrast racial juxtapositions (a shtick that hasn't been thoughtful or eye-grabbing since Benetton did it 15 years ago); the target mood is "uplifting"; and the result is utterly numbing and indistinguishable because it's so completely played out by now. Thanks, AT&T, for adding to the pile.

And still I haven't even gotten to the worst thing about this ad. Because the worst thing (not just with the spot but with the whole campaign) is that the central, defining, overarching element … is a punctuation mark! It's a $200 million media buy that's built on a freaking ampersand!

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I'd thought that AT&T was gradually shedding this symbol. Its Web address is www.att.com (no ampersands in URLs). And its collect calls campaign (starring, in another deft marketing move, Carrot Top) is for 1-800-CALL-ATT, with no ampersand in sight. It seemed more and more, partly just because there's little place for punctuation in modern data movers like tickers and text messages, that the firm was morphing into "ATT."

Well, no more. Thank goodness they've reminded us it's American Telephone AND Telegraph. Mustn't forget the highly profitable telegraph division. (In actuality, AT&T—just like KFC—long ago ceased to officially stand for anything at all.)

Yes, I suppose the ampersand highlights the firm's bundled services—local and long distance and Internet. I concede it's a graphically clever way to express interconnectivity and stuff. But this company didn't need a new graphic. It already has its Death Star globe, which has years and years of built-up brand equity. Are they kicking the globe to the curb? Or just muddling the brand's identity with dueling logos?

And anyway, what's so great about interconnectedness? The ad never tells me why I'd want my services bundled. Is there a price break? Do things somehow mesh better if they're all from the same company? We get no explanation—just a vague promise that "the many ways we communicate are coming together for you."

Whatever. The many ways I communicate are coming together to dis this ad.

Grade: C-. First the "at" sign's career was reinvented by e-mail. Now the ampersand gets a national ad campaign. Even the asterisk has *69. These are heady, heady days for punctuation. (Of course, the stickler will note that these are not in fact punctuation marks, but rather typographical symbols, or "glyphs." Nerd.)

Who will be next? Octothorp (#)? Tilde (~)? Or, dare I hope, the interrobang?!