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Can You Hear Them Now?

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New corporate mascots are common men, and consumers are all ears.

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He's never won an Emmy or starred in a highly rated primetime series. But despite his low profile, actor Paul Marcarelli may be one of the most instantly recognizable faces on television. The Verizon Wireless (VZ) braintrust behind his hugely successful ad campaign know him as Test Man. But to the viewing public, he's the "Can You Hear Me Now?" Guy, just one of the wildly successful -- if completely fictional -- common-man spokespeople in a medium where celebrities like Michael Jordan, Lebron James, and Tiger Woods (whose contract with GM (GM) wasn't renewed this year after 9 years endorsing the company) used to be the standard-bearer.

Recognized for his dark-framed glasses (the actor's own), blue Verizon Wireless jacket (courtesy of the company), and signature catch phrase, Marcarelli's notoriety has reaped huge benefits for Verizon Wireless.

The "Can you hear me now?" campaign debuted in 2002 opposite formidable spots from rival wireless companies like T-Mobile, whose spots at that time starred Oscar-winning actress Catherine Zeta-Jones. On the strength of the Test Man campaign, Verizon Wireless' net customers increased 10% that year compared to 2001 and an additional 15% in 2003. Subsequently, Zeta-Jones' endorsement disappeared, while Marcarelli became an advertising fixture.

Similarly, Alltel wireless introduced their own composite everyman in 2004. Used to promote the company's My Circle feature, the debonair, blonde-haired Chad (played by actor Chad Brokaw) unwittingly patronizes a bunch of hapless schlubs representing rival wireless carriers. The ads gained enough traction that Alltel created personal MySpace and Facebook pages for both Chad and the rival "Sales Guys."

That prevailing trend also unleashed Tony Sinclair, the dapper spokesman showcased in Tanqueray's (DEO) "Ready to Tanqueray" advertisements who imparts bits of cocktail-party wisdom and etiquette. As Alltel did with Chad, Tanqueray proceeded to feature the character (played by actor Rodney Mason) in separate MySpace and "Tony Sinclair's World" sites.

While these characters replace the coveted celebrity spokesperson (and his or her attendant exorbitant fees), they also afford their respective brands a quirky new identity - and one that critically skews toward young people.

"I think that the audience is a little different," says Dean Jarrett, the Senior VP of Marketing Communications at the Martin Agency, an advertising agency whose clients include Alltel, Geico, and UPS (UPS). "The message used to be very linear. Over the years, people noticed that consumers could follow more than one storyline."

Among the Martin Agency's most popular campaigns are Geico's caveman spots, in which cavemen with modern, identifiable personality traits protest the company's assertion that logging on to Geico.com is so easy "even a caveman can do it." The popular mascots helped the company's premiums increase from $3 billion in 1996 to $12 billion in 2008, leapfrogging Progressive (PGR) to become the number-3 car insurer in the process. The caveman ads even inspired a short-lived sitcom on ABC, another odd turn in a branding world once dominated by larger-than-life celebrities.

Aside from their obvious appeal in a down market, the fictional composite spokesperson also provides something that brands covet: Control. "Tiger and Lebron have their own strong brands, so they have complete control - which can limit creative flexibility," says Jarrett.

"We don't have to get approval from the caveman on the copy for the next spot."
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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