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Verizon's 'Can you hear me now?' guy is back...with Sprint

Sprint nabs Verizon's former pitchman in what might be the ultimate troll move.

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10 Aug 2015, San Marcos, Texas, USA --- The logo of U.S. mobile network operator Sprint Corp is seen at a Sprint store in San Marcos, California, in this August 3, 2015 file photo. Sprint is expected to release Q1 results this week. REUTERS/Mike Blake/Files GLOBAL BUSINESS WEEK AHEAD PACKAGE - SEARCH "BUSINESS WEEK AHEAD AUG 10" FOR ALL IMAGES --- Image by © MIKE BLAKE/Reuters/Corbis
© MIKE BLAKE/Reuters/Corbis

Many of you will remember Verizon's "Can you hear me now?" campaign. You know, the one that featured a horn-rimmed glasses-sporting "Test Man" asking the now-oft-repeated question.

Well, the "Test Man" is back, and seeing yellow.

Actor Paul Marcarelli, who spent a decade touting Verizon's network quality, is rival Sprint's newest pitchman.

"I've watched with fascination as each of the wireless carriers claims to be the most reliable or the fastest," he said in a statement. "But what I've found is...the 'better' that some other national carriers claim about reliability is really only a 1 percent difference."

Using Marcarelli, who helped cement Verizon's reputation for a superior network in ads between 2002 and 2011, marks the latest in Sprint's increasingly aggressive efforts to get you to pay attention. The fourth-biggest carrier in the US, which is pulling itself out of a multiyear rut, has also undercut the competition with discount phone plans and invested in improving its network faster.

Marcarelli's first commercial aired Sunday during game two of the NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Sprint plans to run more print, broadcast and online ads in the following weeks.

In trying to convince consumers that the Sprint network is competitive enough for a second look, CEO Marcelo Claure said he wanted to get someone synonymous with network quality. Marcarelli's long stint as the face of Verizon gives him extra credibility, according to Claure.

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Actor Marcarelli in another life as the Verizon "Test Guy."

Screenshot by Roger Cheng/CNET

"He's an iconic figure," the CEO said.

Sprint is touting Marcarelli as a customer, although Claure said he wasn't before the company approached the actor about the campaign. Claure wanted to make sure Marcarelli was comfortable with the service before touting it.

Verizon, meanwhile, isn't looking to the past.

"They're using our 2002 pitchman because they're finally catching up to our 2002 network," said a Verizon spokesman.

Targeting Verizon

This isn't the first time that Sprint and Verizon have tangled.

Verizon, the nation's largest carrier, has aired a series of ads featuring comedic actor Ricky Gervais that criticize Sprint (without calling it by name) and suggest that Sprint isn't entirely forthcoming about network quality. Given how rare it is for the top player in any industry to go after the last-place competitor, Claure took to Twitter to mix it up with Gervais.

"Thanks @Verizon and @rickygervais for advertising that @sprint is faster and more reliable. We agree with you," he said.

Sprint's latest message isn't that its network is better, just that the margin of difference isn't as significant anymore.

"Verizon's network superiority is not where it used to be," Claure said. "Why should people overpay?"

It's unclear how effective Marcarelli will be with younger customers; he hasn't been on the air for five years. And ultimately, he's an actor, not a wireless expert.

Claure argued he was credible enough for Verizon to use him for more than a decade. As for how he thought Verizon would react?

"I have no idea," he said. "But we love when Verizon talks about us."

Update, 8:26 p.m. PT: Verizon's comments were added.