NetZero taunts AOL with copycat ads.

NetZero taunts AOL with copycat ads.

NetZero taunts AOL with copycat ads.

Advertising deconstructed.
Nov. 29 2004 6:44 AM

I Know You Are But What Am ISP?

NetZero taunts AOL with copycat ads.

NetZero: Looks like AOL, only funnier
NetZero: Looks like AOL, only funnier

The spot: It appears, at first, to be that grating AOL ad—the one where the mom climbs onto the conference table. But wait! The end is different this time. When the mom asks for spam and virus protection, the AOL exec says, "You got it," just like in the original, but when mom adds that she wants to pay only $9.95 a month, the AOLers say "Yeah, you'd have to go to NetZero for that." (Click here to see the ad.)

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.

Daaaaaaaaaaaaaamn! That is cold, yo.

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In the last "Ad Report Card," I chided AOL for its lame new campaign (and lamer business model). I said AOL was screwed because other dial-up providers, such as NetZero, offer a near-identical service for much less money. Apparently, NetZero's not at all afraid to kick a brand when it's down.

NetZero's chairman, Mark Goldston, says he saw the AOL ads on TV—just like the rest of us—and immediately sensed a chance to attack. (When I talked to Goldston on the phone, I could almost smell the testosterone coming through the line. He's clearly a hyper-aggressive, take-no-prisoners kind of CEO.) It took less than two weeks to cast these copycat spots (with look-alikes aping the AOL actors), build the sets (careful replicas of AOL's), and shoot and edit the ads. The NetZero spots popped up while the AOL campaign was still on the air.

And the parodies are pretty dead-on. The NetZero actress really captures the sashaying whininess of the AOL mom. Also, I like how they exaggerate her pushing down the bald guy's head. That little shove always galled me in the AOL spot. Poor bald guy, with his intellectual eyeglass frames (a style we used to call, back in the boom, "new-media glasses")—he's not hurting anyone. What makes Mom thinks she's better than him?

Anyway, these NetZero spots are well-done and speedily produced. But could they be a little too mean? Is there such a thing as sportsmanship when it comes to advertising? I asked NetZero's Goldston if any ads in the past directly mimicked competitors' campaigns. We agreed that they may well exist (no doubt you'll write in to remind me), but he couldn't remember any and neither can I. And now suddenly, in just the past week or so, I've seen two such throw-downs. The other's an ad for Bud Light that walks all over Miller's funny referee spots. (In the Miller spots, football refs whistle a foul on any dude who fails to buy Miller Lite. In the Bud spot, the refs are shown calling the penalties, seizing Bud Lights as contraband, and then gleefully running off with these beers to drink them.)

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I think neither Bud nor NetZero will face any serious backlash for being too mean. It's just capitalism, after all. But that doesn't mean parodies always make for sound marketing.

Bud and Miller have been in a micturating match for a while now. In one recent dust-up, Bud responded to Miller's "President of Beers" campaign by taking pains to note that Miller was bought by (horrors!) a foreign company. Clearly, Bud has opted for a rapid-response policy. Any nascent Miller campaign meets with swift and harsh retribution, before it can get its legs under it.

As I've said before, I think this is an unwise strategy for Bud. By taking Miller's bait, and repeatedly mentioning Miller by name in ads, Bud implies that the two brands are competing on level footing. A true alpha brand (as Bud always used to be, while Miller was the scrappy No. 2) wouldn't even bother to respond. Either Bud thinks a heated-up rivalry helps their sales, or they're worried that Miller's ads are working too well.

What's wrong for Bud, however, is right for NetZero. The situation here is radically different, as AOL has always been the alpha brand of dial-up services. AOL currently holds 45 percent of the market, dwarfing NetZero's 7 percent.

More important, NetZero (unlike Bud) has a clear and quantifiable advantage to press: It offers pretty much the same product as AOL, for a lot less money.

NetZero's goal, from the beginning, has been to own the "value-priced" segment of the dial-up business—to be the cheap option of choice. According to NetZero, there will be 25 million new households on the Internet by 2007, and of those, 15 million will have household incomes under $35,000 a year. Unlike AOL, NetZero isn't directly competing with broadband for subscribers—because much of NetZero's target market can't afford broadband. The dial-up market may be shrinking, but NetZero still has a lot of room to grow within it.

Grade: B+. Bonus points for getting these ads out so fast. And they're funny, partly because they're so bold—the parody thing feels new, for now. But the humor is not actually all that creative. In essence, it's just nyaah-nyaah little sis in the backseat of the minivan, copycatting everything we say. If lots of other brands start acting like this, we'll soon be yelling for mom to make them cut it out.