Opposition to Bell mergers turns ugly

A pair of groups funded by AT&T run negative television ads in Illinois and Ohio to blast the proposed merger between SBC Communications and Ameritech.

It's negative advertising season on TV again.

The fall elections are long past, but a pair of groups funded by AT&T are running negative television ads in Illinois and Ohio, blasting the proposed merger between SBC Communications and Ameritech.

Together, the groups are currently spending close to $800,000 for three weeks of advertisements in major media markets like Chicago, Springfield, Illinois, and Columbus, Ohio, in an attempt to sway consumers against the deal.

The negative advertising campaigns, which attack SBC and ask consumers to oppose the deal, come at a sensitive time for the Bell companies. Regulators in both states are reviewing the merger this month, and a negative ruling in either state may aid in derailing the $69 billion agreement.

In Illinois, the current television ads are funded by a group called the Illinois Partnership for Telecommunications Policy. The organization is made up of AT&T, Sprint, a handful of smaller competing phone companies, ISPs, and the state cable television association, as well as "more than 500 individual consumers," according to the group's literature.

"What do we really know about SBC, the giant Texas phone monopoly that wants to take over our local phone company, Ameritech," a voice-over on the Illinois advertisement wonders.

The 30-second spot quickly answers its own question, citing several California newspaper articles that talk about SBC's attempts to raise prices for information and yellow page services.

In Ohio, an organization called Ohioans for Phone Policy Reform--also funded by AT&T, as well as a pair of pro-business lobbying groups--are running similar television spots and newspaper ads.

The negative bent to the political campaign-style ads follow public relations efforts elsewhere in the country, where local and long distance companies have tangled over competition issues. In California, a series of ads were run by a similar "grass-roots" group--dubbed Californians for Telecommunications Choice--that blasted Pacific Bell for not opening its markets to competition.

In that case, Pac Bell responded with its own ads criticizing AT&T in its attempts to hide behind a "consumer" organization in the ads.

An Ameritech spokeswoman said that company had no similar plans. "We have no plans as of right now to run television ads in response to their ads," said Lisa Kim, an Ameritech spokeswoman.

The Illinois group is associated with Edelman Worldwide, the public relations giant that also helped Microsoft plan its own "grass-roots" campaign a year ago. That effort turned into an embarrassment for the company after the Los Angeles Times acquired internal documents detailing the strategy.

Corporate-backed lobbying groups, often with a consumer-sounding name, are nothing new in the public relations field. The practice of collecting like-minded businesses and a handful of consumers or voters is dubbed "astroturf" lobbying--so called because the groups typically paint themselves as genuine "grass-roots" campaigns.

But while both the Illinois and Ohio groups have existed for more than a year, running previous newspaper and television ads, the current series is potentially among the most damaging yet. As both state public service commissions review the Ameritech-SBC merger, any public outcry could be damaging to the Baby Bells' deal.

"What we call it is perceptioneering," said John Davies, president of Davies Communications, a large public affairs firm in Santa Barbara, California. "It's a cross between normal commercial public relations and political work. Perception is really a political issue."

AT&T is doing the right strategic thing by trying to mobilize consumers, even if its links to the Illinois and Ohio groups have been left too much in the open, Davies added.

"You need to use tactics that reach out and motivate people on your side," Davies said. "If the people who have to make this decision hear from a lot of people against it, they're not going to approve it."

The long distance backed groups have a long way to go, however. A poll commissioned by Ameritech in December found that only 8 percent of Illinois residents thought the merger should be blocked, and that a quarter of people said they simply didn't care.