Sunday, May 20, 2012

Bully, AT&T!

The TV commercial that I love to hate is back.

You may have seen it (although I'm probably the last person without DVR). It's Daddy's Career Day at elementary school, and an unshaven, unkempt cable guy awkwardly starts to tell the class the basics of what he does. Quickly, a chubby-cheeked, cherub-faced little girl challenges him with a loaded question, then points out with a wry face that he's wrong—her mother says AT&T can do what he's just said can't be done. The rest of the class looks ready to jump in. The teacher does, mocking him about some other feature that cable doesn't offer. Finally, the beaten cable guy says, "Who wants to hear from a fireman?" The teacher quickly raises her hand and says, "I do," encouraging her enthusiastic charges to do the same. "Yea!" they scream as the cable guy sheepishly slinks off, yielding the floor to the smirking fireman.

It's just a TV ad, just big AT&T vs. big cable (presumably Comcast). It's just a vignette, a slice of life, a more engaging, memorable way to highlight AT&T's supposed advantages over their competitor than laying it out through direct narrative. But I loathe every moment and detail of this commercial. Why?

There's nothing overly controversial in the concept, copy, or execution, 60 seconds that no one's going to chat about at the water cooler.

Does the behavior sound familiar, though? It should. It's no more and no less than bullying. No one likes the cable guy—he's unattractive and inarticulate, and he represents the clearly unpopular cable company, while AT&T is the cool kid in school. Not only do the children belittle him, but they're aided and abetted by their teacher, the adult authority who of all people should be quick to take responsibility for stopping bullying before it takes root. Instead, she smirks and gives the man the equivalent of the old-fashioned hook pulling him offstage.

Haven't we (or AT&T and their ad agency) learned anything since Columbine turned the spotlight on bullying and the potential consequences? Since each incident of school violence and each teen suicide that flashes that spotlight again? Every time something happens, hundreds of people express their horror and their aversion on news sites that cross international boundaries.

Yet there it is, still winked at in a commercial for giant AT&T. I squirm each time I see it, perhaps because many times and in many places I've been the cable guy facing a bully or even a room full of bullies. Despite all the awareness campaigns and all the impotent outrage over every senseless death and injury, bullying is deeply embedded in our culture—it's in our schools, businesses, and workplaces, even in our churches.

And on our TVs. If we don't have DVR.


  1. Have you seen the documentary Bully? The school administrators shown in the film are utterly dim, and their blindness serves to enable bullying,

  2. Not yet. That's the one that was rated PG-13 or R so that (theoretically) most kids couldn't see it on their own, right? Even though it wasn't that violent? When I was a kid, I'm pretty sure the prevailing adult attitude was "toughen up and take it." One problem with that is that's asking me to change my personality to accommodate people who are acting in an anti-social way (another is that there were more of them than of me). I really believe there's an empathy deficit that's growing, and that's why instead of helping the poor it's easier to mock them or lecture them. But people like my parents remembered what it was like to be poor.

  3. It's not really bullying in this commercial. I agree that the little snarky girl is a presumptuous know-it-all, and speaks to an adult in a very uncalled for, inappropriate way. However, there is no threatening, and nothing is done by the child that couldn't be corrected by someone telling the girl "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything".
    My wife and I hate the ATT commercial as well, because we are tired of seeing adults -especially parents, portrayed as idiots who get bossed around by their ill-behaved kids. It's as if the marketers are saying, "get this product and your brat chat will love you more". Whereas bad parents deserve bad kids, I'm just tired of seeing them being marketed to while I'm trying to enjoy my shows.