Under the Influence

Why the "Can you hear me now?" guy sprinted to another brand

When a spokesperson switches companies, it can attract a lot of attention.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

The cell phone industry is one of the most highly competitive categories in the marketing world. In the U.S., that competition is extreme.

Beginning in 2002, Verizon ran a TV campaign they called "Test Man."

That line - "Can you hear me now?" - became Verizon's catchphrase for the next nine years.

It was an interesting marketing strategy. Many cell phone providers fight it out with pricing. But Verizon chose to talk about signal quality. Their logic: If you couldn't make a call, it didn't matter how many low-cost minutes you have in a cell plan.

The ad campaign caught on because "Can you hear me now?" was a phrase all cell phone users could relate to.

Within 24 months, Verizon grew its customer base by 10 per cent, then another 15 per cent the following year. Huge numbers in a brutally competitive category. For nine years, actor Paul Marcarelli was the "Can you hear me now?" Verizon guy. He was reportedly making a quarter of a million dollars per year - but the contract had stipulations: He could not do any other commercials, he had to keep his identity quiet and he was not to discuss the campaign.

Repeated exposure on a long-running national advertising campaign gave Paul Marcarelli a big dose of fame. He signed endless autographs in airports and posed for thousands of selfies.

There were awkward moments of fame, as well.

At a wedding he attended, more people lined up for pictures with Marcarelli than they did with the bride. Then there was the funeral of Marcarelli's grandmother. As her casket was being lowered into the ground, Marcarelli heard someone in attendance whisper, "Can you hear me now?" All of which is to say, Paul Marcarelli was fully, completely and indelibly identified as the Verizon "Can you hear me now?" guy. So it was surprising to see him show up in a Sprint commercial.

After nine years, Marcarelli's contract with Verizon ended in 2011. He was then approached by Verizon's rival Sprint to try their service. Marcarelli was impressed - so Sprint asked him to star in a TV campaign titled "Paul Switched."

That Sprint commercial got a lot of attention - because viewers instantly understood the long-time Verizon spokesperson had switched to Sprint.

In a fully-saturated category like cell phones, almost all new customers have to be poached from competitors. And what better way to persuade people to switch than to get the other team's guy to switch on national television.

The Sprint commercial with Marcarelli was viewed over 14 million times. The CEO at the time said that Sprint had beat both AT&T and Verizon that quarter in terms of adding new customers. It was a bold campaign for the #4 carrier.

Clearly, customers could hear Sprint now.

For more stories about Spokespeople Switching Brands, click or tap the "Listen" tab above to hear the full Under the Influence episode. You can also find us on the CBC Listen app or subscribe to our Podcast.

Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio, a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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Terry O'Reilly leaning against his 1969 Airstream trailer turned mobile recording studio a listener dubbed the "Terstream." (Terry O'Reilly)