Big Corporations in Mom-and-Pop Disguise

If you believe the TV commercials and magazine ads, the age of the mom-and-pop company is back.

Instead of relying on telecommunication giants AT&T Wireless or MCI for your cellular-phone service, you can get your text-messaging needs met by the mysterious but more personable mLife. And you can celebrate by bragging to your mother about it on The Neighborhood's home-telephone service and swigging some Doc’s Hard Lemon drink instead of corporate brew Budweiser.

But look at the small print, and you’ll see that you’ve been buying from the biggies all along.

The newest trend in marketing is big corporations posing as small companies in a bid to recast themselves as friendlier and more customer-caring.

"The big companies are posing as smaller, folksy companies," said Pete Spina, publisher of the Sporting News, who sees the evidence everyday in his paper’s advertising section. "Consumers are fooled every day. Are they suckers? I guess to some degree they are."

Thus the airwaves are buzzing with feel-good MCI commercials in which distant relatives get back in touch, close friends become closer and the whole world seems smaller and happier. Viewers can make out it’s an MCI brand by reading the relatively small print.

"Everyone knows 'MCI' stands for long-distance, but we wanted people to think of phone service in a completely different way," MCI spokeswoman Claire Hassett said. "We chose 'The Neighborhood' because it does evoke comfortable feelings and positive emotions about where people live and where they make their most important phone calls – their home phone."

Take the campaign for mLife, in which a quirky set of youngsters exercise their thumbs for the service’s text-messaging service and ask each other, "Do you have an mLife?" That mLife happens to be one and the same as AT&T Wireless is mentioned almost as an afterthought.

"When you think of mLife, as opposed to talking about some corporation, it’s about people and what they’re actually going to be using mLife for," AT&T Wireless spokesman Ritch Blasi said. "It’s not AT&T Wireless presents (high-tech wireless service) mMode, it’s mMode, presented by AT&T Wireless."

Marketing experts said it’s just the return of a theme that made its biggest splash when two oldsters calling themselves Bartles and Jaymes hawked wine coolers, with folksy banter that neglected to mention they were actors selling a product from the Ernest & Julio Gallo Winery.

"MCI and AT&T: Can you tell the difference between their rate plans? I sure can’t," said Jeff Balash, a senior investment banker at Comstock Partners who specializes in the consumer marketing. "It’s lost in the clutter, so you have to hook them psychologically. MCI wants you to feel kindly to them, you feel like part of their family. It’s linking it to the small – we all root for the underdog."

The theme has never left the alcoholic-beverage industry, where consumers still turn up their noses at the standard beers like Miller Genuine Draft for oh-so-fancy "microbrews" like the Plank Road Brewery’s Red Dog. Never mind that Plank Road Brewery is Miller Brewing.

The latest incarnation is in the lemon-flavored beer from the makers of Budweiser.

"Doc’s Hard Lemon: Nobody knows that's Anheuser-Busch. Why would it help them if people knew that?" asked Tony Wainwright, chairman of ad company Arnold Worldwide. "In the mind of the consumer, the little niche brands make people think, 'Gee, people are making it in a little building somewhere. It’s handcrafted, not mass-produced in a big factory.'"

That was what Wainwright was thinking when he came up with the marketing for Pale Rider Ale, a boutique beer endorsed by Clint Eastwood, sold in small batches only in certain parts of the West and Southwest and, oh yeah, produced by the Coors Brewing Company.

The recent push for the down-home masquerade has been even stronger since Sept. 11 opened up a wave of nostalgic Americana, said Wainwright. "There’s a return to the heartland and, this is corny but I’ll say it, family, animals, comfort food, all those kinds of things."

But Balash said the trend won’t last any more than those two photogenic old men on TV were really named Bartles and Jaymes.

"People catch on. They say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s actually made by Coke,’" he said. "And they become jaundiced and jaded. And then after a while, when it hasn’t been done, someone will say, ‘Hey, remember that Bartles & Jaymes campaign? We can do that!’"