LITTLE ROCK — Welcome to the Man Cave.
It's the latest evolution of Alltel Corp.'s My Circle ad campaign, where the "geek squad" from cell-phone rivals AT&T, Verizon, Sprint Nextel and TMobile typically meet self-defeat as they try to keep happy-go-lucky Alltel sales character Chad from spreading call-plan flexibility throughout the wireless world.
Now they have a pseudo-secret base - basement, that is- where they can plot against Alltel and all for which it stands. But the entrance is online.
That marks a milestone for the nation's fifth-largest wireless carrier - if not advertising in general - as the Internet will serve as the primary medium for what is "by far" Alltel's largest interactive campaign to date, spokesman Dale Ingram said.
"The earlier ads did a good job in positioning our brand. That's why we're continuing the story line," said Wanda Young,the Little Rock-based company's director of interactive marketing. "At the same time, Internet behavior is changing through broadband penetration and YouTube. So we're taking people where they can learn about Alltel in different ways than ever before."
Young describes the Man Cave as an "anti-Alltel" Web site that presents a story line through the eyes of the "sales guys" from the other companies.
"From their 'evil lair' they'll be able to disrupt every element of media - TV, outdoor ads, print ads, even our corporate Web site," she said.
Starting today, such "disruptions" will tease visitors into the Man Cave - the basement of the AT&T character's home (where he still lives with his mom) - which was introduced in previous commercials.
In spots to air on channels including VH1, ABC Family, USA Network and Comedy Central, as well as major networks, Alltel ads will appear to be "hacked into" by its rivals from the Man Cave, enticing its exploration through www.officialmancave.com.
Once inside, visitors will encounter interactive areas such as the Man-lounge, a Man-brary, a phone lab, a kitchen and a Spy Wall, where a click of a mouse can trigger more than 50 activities that include skits, allowing users to write messages or post e-mail, or throw darts at a board with Chad's photo over the bull's-eye.
There is also a "confessional" room where the characters relay their innermost feelings about Chad - and each other.
"The big guy from Sprint is shallow as a kiddie pool and smells even worse. And he's always saying 'Power Up.' What does that mean?" says the AT&T character during one confessional visit.
"I hate companies that say something that sounds cool but, when you think about it, really doesn't mean anything ... Oh, I gotta go 'raise the bar.'"
Since hiring Michigan-based Campbell-Ewald as its lead ad agency in 2005, Alltel has frequently poked fun at competitors with whom it also has business ties. Through roaming pacts with each company, Alltel lays claim of offering its 12 million customers the nation's largest wireless network in terms of geographical spread.
A forerunner of the Man Cave was a viral Internet campaign last summer in which Chad stood accused in a mock trial of putting people into his My Circle network without their permission. My Circle allows customers to make free calls to any 10 numbers on any network.
At the end of the campaign, Chad was found guilty. But a MySpace page launched for Chad during the effort has since attracted more than 2,500 "friends."
"Every time we do a new spot, people communicate with Chad as though he were a real person," said Iain Lainovich, vice president and associate creative director at Campbell-Ewald. "So when something happens in the Man Cave, people can discuss it there or within the new Web site."
This time, even Chad's archenemies will have a MySpace page, where their hip-hop group the "Wireless Thugz" will debut a music video titled Rollin In Da Man Van. The Web page address is www.wirelessthugz.com.
While humor is longtime staple of productive ad campaigns, it is no guarantee - Internet or not - of long-term success, said Shanker Krishnan, an associate professor of marketing at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business.
"Sharing a laugh can be a lot more persuasive and I think it creates awareness. It does a great job of cutting through the clutter," he said. "At the same time, there is a down side. Does the consumer come away with a positive impression of the brand?"
One example Krishnan cited was a recent ad for Bud Light in which comedian Carlos Mencia teaches a classroom of immigrants how to order beer in English.
In part of the ad, the immigrants are urged to say "no speak English" if someone asks for a Bud Light. At the end of the ad, one immigrant struggles through his thick accent, saying "Bood Light" instead.
"Sure you create a laugh. But are you also alienating part of the market?" Krishnan asked. "Those are the sorts of things you want to make sure you avoid as you go forward."
In Alltel's My Circle campaign, the Sprint Nextel character is overweight and described by Lainovich as the "lazy guy" in the group.
But Alltel and Campbell-Ewald have taken steps to avoid insensitivity, Ingram said.
"It's a physical attribute only and is never used as part of a story line," Ingram said. "We're very aware that sensitivity is an issue, but we don't feel we've ever crossed the line based on testing customers and our own reviews.We don't intend to make his weight a factor in any way."
As more and more Americans gain access to online content, the Internet will play an greater role in how corporate America gets its messages to the public, Krishnan said.
But he advised that people shouldn't expect the Internet to become a dominant advertising vehicle, despite its ability to deliver text, sound and video into a single presentation.
"It's not going to replace any medium. But it will be one of several that will shape our perceptions about products," Krishnan said.
Business, Pages 19, 22 on 08/06/2007