Super Bowl blitz: T-Mobile, Sprint aim to hit hard with buzzy ads

There's no better way to make a good impression than with a memorable Super Bowl ad, and the two carriers figure to make headway against bigger spenders Verizon Wireless and AT&T.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
4 min read

T-Mobile's Kim Kardashian ad is already generating attention for the company.
T-Mobile's Kim Kardashian ad is already generating attention for the company. T-Mobile

It may be the big game, but it's the smaller wireless carriers that are hoping to make a splash with Super Bowl commercials.

For a second year in a row, Sprint and T-Mobile have commercials airing Sunday during the game. T-Mobile has already released its two spots, one featuring a self-parodying Kim Kardashian bemoaning all of the unused data that gets taken back by carriers, and one with comedians Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler one-upping each other over where they're able to get reception through T-Mobile's Wi-Fi calling service.

Sprint has only a teaser for its spot up on YouTube, hinting at an "apology" that it will make to AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Its commercial will air in the game's third quarter.

A steady drumbeat of wireless commercials air on a daily basis, but Sprint and T-Mobile, the nation's third- and fourth-largest wireless carriers, respectively, spend significantly less than their larger rivals on advertising. With the Super Bowl, though, the two companies get a chance to maximize their audience and get their message out.

"The Super Bowl has obviously one of the biggest audiences out there for advertising and is a great way for both the smaller operators to make a big splash," said Jan Dawson, an analyst for Jackdaw Research.

Verizon, the nation's largest wireless carrier, won't have any ads during the game, but as the official sponsor of the National Football League, its presence will still be visible. No. 2 AT&T won't have any ads during the Super Bowl either.

For Sprint and T-Mobile, these ads represent a significant investment, with television network NBC charging companies up to $4.5 million for a 30-second spot. But there's no better place to guarantee eyeballs: Last year's Super Bowl was the most-watched television program in US history, with 111.5 million viewers.

"For us, it's an opportunity to generate a lot of awareness quickly," said Sprint Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Hallock.

T-Mobile has also commissioned a separate commercial starring comedian Rob Riggle specifically for the online broadcast of the Super Bowl. For the first time, the Super Bowl will be made available online to anyone, streamed by NBC alongside its television broadcast.

"We get outgunned in spending by the duopoly," said T-Mobile Chief Marketing Officer Mike Sievert. "We have to enter our media events with a lot more creativity, speed and nimbleness."

A socially savvy approach

T-Mobile's Kardashian ad is already drumming up early buzz, thanks in part to her own massive social following. Kardashian has 28.3 million followers on Twitter and 25.3 million followers on Instagram.

She plays up that fact by lamenting that the unused data the carrier takes away could have been utilized to see more selfies of her "tennis backhand" and "outfits." The commercial will have a social media "call to action" allowing people to tweet at her during the game, Sievert said.

Love or hate her, she's been able to generate a lot of attention for her commercial and T-Mobile. The YouTube video has already been viewed 10 million times.

"If you look at the Kim Kardashian ad, she is a social-media powerhouse," Sievert said.

T-Mobile follows up another buzzworthy set of commercials from last year, featuring a self-deprecating Tim Tebow trying out different careers in the wake of his mixed success as a quarterback in the NFL. Sievert joked that Tebow had a better Super Bowl than Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who was on the losing end of a 43-8 rout at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks.

"T-Mobile in particular has been really smart about its marketing over the past couple of years, and I'd argue it's really been able to overcome a lot of the disadvantage in total ad-spend versus AT&T and Verizon," Dawson said.

Looking to bounce back

Sprint, meanwhile, will need to step up its game from last year's forgettable spot touting its Framily friends and family program. The offer, which saw its discounts increase with each additional member, was scrapped over the summer when new CEO Marcelo Claure took over.

The company has been more active and has been vocal about its promotion to halve the phone bills of AT&T and Verizon Wireless customers who switch. One ad in the fall called the two larger carriers "sheep," and Sprint now apparently wants to made amends with its rivals. While the company hasn't shown off the commercial, the teaser suggests Sprint has more shenanigans in store.

"We're trying to keep it light," Hallock said. "It's an apology of sorts we'll provide to our competition."

Sprint has shown a flicker of life. Last month, the company said it added nearly 1 million customers in the critical fourth quarter, reversing several quarters of customer defections. Sprint has been pinned down by the perception that its network still lags far behind those of its competitors.

Though Sprint's network has improved over the last year, Hallock acknowledged the negative perception. He's hoping the promotions will get customers to choose Sprint, and that word of mouth will help rejuvenate its reputation.

Beyond the lower rates, Sprint said that for customers looking to leave AT&T, it would match the data rollover plan offered by that company. The program doesn't apply to defecting T-Mobile customers, who are eligible for a different kind of rollover plan.

Sprint will have to go the extra mile to surprise, given the buzz that other ads have already generated.

"There's a risk that it's just seen as a me-too participant in the Super Bowl," Dawson said, "unless it can really do something unexpected."