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‘Soap Opera’ Approach : Family Ads Ring True for Phone Company

Associated Press

A six-month series of New England Telephone Co. commercials that touched viewers’ hearts with a story about a father and daughter’s attempts to reconcile reached a happy ending on Christmas Day.

Not that the outcome was really in doubt.

“We’re the telephone company,” said Geraldine O’Brien, advertising director. “We don’t do unhappy endings.”

The story, which had unfolded since July on television and radio in five New England states, had prompted intense audience interest and speculation about how the father-daughter standoff would be resolved.

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Priests delivered sermons derived from the commercials; a billboard urging daughter Jill to “Call Dad” appeared; talk show hosts threw open their microphones to listeners with an opinion on the family drama, and at least one troubled family produced its own videotape takeoff on the tear-jerker.

“Some people take it very seriously, which as an advertiser amazes me,” O’Brien said. “People are participating in it as if it’s real life.”

In a dispute apparently sparked by the man in her life, Jill and her father had not spoken in two years. The first spot saw sister Kathy making a stab at bringing them back together, only to have Dad hang up at the mention of his estranged daughter’s name.

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In subsequent ads, Dad called back to apologize for his rash response but refused to bury the hatchet, and Kathy pleaded with her sister to make amends before it was too late.

In the campaign’s climax Sunday, Jill at last picked up the telephone and, in a gesture of apparent holiday good will, called home. Dad responded by tearfully admitting: “I was wrong. I had no right to interfere in your life like that.”

“I’ve missed you so much, Dad,” Jill returned, as the camera panned over various grinning family members.

The $5-million advertising campaign exposed themes of vanity and false pride, said the Rev. Philip McGraw of Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted in Waltham, Mass., who recently gave a Sunday sermon inspired in part by the commercials.

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“I’ve used the slogan ‘Reach out and touch someone’ many times, as I think we all have,” the Roman Catholic priest said. “And this was similar. I used the commercial in the context of compassion.

“If we don’t do the right things, like make the effort to solve family quarrels, we diminish ourselves,” he said. “It takes so little effort to make others feel better that it would be unthinkable not to try.”

Gregory Payne, chairman of Emerson College’s communications department, said the aura of reality helped make the advertisements so successful.

“It’s the first time people are taking a miniseries, soap opera approach. It’s demanded a coactive response from the audience,” Payne said, adding that the campaign’s timing was no coincidence.

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“It’s a pretty subliminal message. Many people will say to themselves ‘Hey, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen the old man’ and give it a try. Of course, what will happen to those of us who act that out isn’t revealed in the ad.”

O’Brien said most customers asked said they considered the telephone among the best ways to mend fences.

Awareness Increases

“I don’t want to get too psychological, but sometimes it’s easier to reconcile by phone,” she said. “Sometimes if you’ve had an argument--as often happens in families--there’s the fear of a rebuff or rejection face to face. It’s easier to make up by telephone.”

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“The Family” radio and TV spots proved more than an expression of good will for the telephone company.

Carolyn Smith, vice president of Boston’s Cabot Advertising, said marketing surveys show consumer awareness of the phone company’s ads increased more than 58% since the campaign was launched.

“We were the first to use this format, but I think it’s a trend,” she said, adding that New England Telephone has been contacted by other telephone companies interested in running the same or similar spots in other parts of the country. MCI and Nissan have also launched similar campaigns.


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