From The Ethics Alarms Mail Bag: A Reader Asks, “Is The Verizon Wireless “Can You Hear Me Now?” Guy Unethical For Going Over To Sprint?

Question: Is the former Verizon Wireless spokes-character  whose tag line was “Can you hear me now?” unethical to star in commercials for Verizon competitor Sprint?

Answer: No, because that character, “the Test Man,” wasn’t real.

The real actor who played him, Paul Marcarelli, was playing a character and reading a script. He was acting the role of someone who told the audience how good the Verizon Wireless network was. He didn’t have to believe what he said was true. His loyalty extended no farther than his contractual obligations. The actor wasn’t ethically obligated to use Verizon Wireless, like it, understand it or believe in it, any more than Dos Equis’s “most interesting man in the world” has to really be interesting. Once the first ad series was dropped, he was a free agent.

Verizon could have included some kind of non-compete provision in the contract, forbidding Marcarelli from doing ads for a competitor, at least for a while.  It definitely could have prevented him from playing the same character as he played in the Verizon commercials, because that character is owned by Verizon. However,  Marcarelli uses his real name, Paul, in those Sprint ads, so he can argue that he’s not playing the Verizon character, but himself, and he owns the rights to “Paul Marcarelli.”

However, I do think the Sprint ads are unethical, and so obviously dishonest that they reflect poorly on Sprint.

If Marcarelli was paid to give an honest testimonial about Sprint service, looking into the camera and saying, “I’m Paul Marcarelli. You know me as the actor who played the “Do you hear me now?” guy in those TV ads for Verizon Wireless. That was a good gig, but I’m here to tell you, as a Sprint customer, that that you’ll be able to hear me just as well for a lot less money using the Sprint network,” that would be ethically fine.

That’s not how the current ads work, though. Marcarelli is presented looking like the “Test Guy,” and he’s scripted to make it sound like he’s really switched carriers for the reasons he says he did, not because Sprint is paying him. The sense of the ad is that he’s not an actor, but a former spokesperson for Verizon who has switched alliances and carriers because using Sprint is a better deal.

Well, how stupid does Sprint think we are? Marcarelli is playing someone that evokes that Verizon character, now for Sprint, for one reason only: they hired him. The also hired him to lie about the reason his “character” switched carriers. It wasn’t because Sprint is now a comparable service. It’s because the real actor Paul Marcarelli was hired to play someone called “Paul” who says it is. Sure, Marcarelli is probably using Sprint now, to make sure someone doesn’t do some research and prove he’s a fake. He isn’t obligated to; actors aren’t responsible for what they say unless they say it on their own behalf. An advertiser, however, that falsely suggests that the actor is endorsing a product or service on his own behalf is playing a dangerous game.

The character now seems disloyal. He seems like a turncoat, and that makes him an unattractive service endorser. If “Flo,” actually actress Stephanie Courtney, suddenly started turning up in GEICO commercials after all these years of hyping Progressive auto insurance, we’d feel like she was a traitor. How would we feel if Tony the Tiger did a commercial for Cheerios, saying, “I used to tell you Frosted Flakes were G-R-R-R-R-EAT! but Cheerios are G-R-R-R-REATER!


My guess is that Verizon doesn’t mind the ads, because it makes Verizon look like a victim of ingratitude and disloyalty.


Pointer: Fred

Facts: USA Today

47 thoughts on “From The Ethics Alarms Mail Bag: A Reader Asks, “Is The Verizon Wireless “Can You Hear Me Now?” Guy Unethical For Going Over To Sprint?

  1. Oh please Jack! Get off your high horse! If you’d just give 3rd parties a chance! I’m sick of this “there’s only 2 options nonsense”. Our system will never get…. oh. Uh. Never mind.

    • Third parties work, sort of, in parliamentary systems, when by definition, the executive has political support in the legislature. A president with no party would be crippled from day one. The US does this backwards—a new party will need a presence in Congress, and then a 3rd party President becomes feasible.

  2. You joke about Stephanie Courtney doing GEICO commercials, but she was in Cavemen, the GEICO commercial spinoff sitcom.

    Not the same thing, certainly, but it is funny.

      • I didn’t watch it, save for a few minutes of it once. It was wretched.

        But I do remember a commentator talking about it once, and I am nothing if not a giant pot for trivia to sink into to float to the surface once the information is relevant.

      • Jack: I am curious about your assessment of Stephanie Courtney’s acting skills. I have not seen her anywhere but in the Progressive ads, although I see from reading here that (no surprise to me) she has won other roles. I was most impressed by her in the one ad where she plays a range of characters, like they’re all in one big family (at a camp site, or something like that). I am trying to picture her doing well in a major movie role…seems like she could play a good teacher…or maybe, a law school student or lawyer…Okay, now I am going far off topic with my curiosity: which actors currently in commercials impress you the most? (I mean, for their ACTING SKILLS – never mind Neil Patrick Harris, for example.) I appreciate your clear explanation of the unethical Sprint ad. (My ethics alarms are still as they long have been: only sometimes functional.)

        • She’s excellent, but strange. Yes, that Eddie Murphy homage spot is impressive. She has said in interviews that she always gave off a tongue in cheek vibe that had her losing parts and struggling until she got the Progressive gig. Sometimes being so identified with a single character and product over a long period is a death sentence once the gig ends…we shall see. But she’s very good.

          • Thanks; I played some roles in my young adult life, even lead roles (but not in anything “major” or paid), but never had any “schooling” or mentoring by a notable professional. But the experiences left me with a chronic and irresistible motivation to evaluate other actors’ performances – a kind of self-appointed talent scout. I do think Stephanie Courtney is very good, just like you – and am concerned for her future for the same reason you explained. Now, I am stuck on following the career paths of the cast of Modern Family (sitcom on ABC). Oh, okay: I’m OBSESSED with their career paths. I want to see Ty Burrell go on to big-time stardom in multiple media in diverse roles – comedy, drama, action-adventure – good guy, bad guy…I know he did a voice in a toon movie recently. (Finding Dory?)

  3. When you said the ad itself was unethical I thought you were going to follow up with “because sprint is trash and couldn’t get an LTE signal to the president much less the 300 million Americans that they claim. ”

    This may or may not be related to me being a former sprint customer.

  4. I disagree. I think the guy’s conduct is sleazy. I think he’s being issued “The Actor’s Pass.” It should be a new rationalization which says actors can do anything because they’re all wonderful, underpaid and under-appreciated wonderful human beings and artists. The guy is trading on a character that his former employer created. Does he really wear those goofy, nerdy glasses in real life? Does he really act like a goofy nerd in real life? And sure, his non-compete has probably expired, but so what. What he did was legal. Sounds like Clintonistas saying “there’s no evidence of criminality [yet].” He’s an ingrate and now making money literally attacking the hand that used to feed him. Legal sure. Ethical no.

    • What? They are meat puppets! They are conduits for the speech of others, like microphones and bullhorns. Obviously there are the exceptions: an actor has perosnal responsibility when he participates in a project designed or likely to do tangible, gratuitous harm. They facilitate free speech and commercials speach. Do you really want to hold actors responsible for being in cigarettes and Donald Trump ads? Come on.

      • An actor doesn’t have to live with himself for doing cigarette commercials? They get free passes when they wake up in the middle of the night?

        No wonder Hollywood types and the Kardashians get oozed over as they pop out kids and ex-spouses like muffins. They’re meat puppets.

        We don’t need no golden rule, we’re meat puppets!

        • I find this really interesting and educational. (Sorry for borrowing one of your lines, Alizia.) I’ve always been skeptical of Seventeenth Century families (and others) cutting off their children for “going on the stage.” I thought, “Whats the big deal? Acting is just a profession like any other.” But maybe those families were right. Maybe acting is an inherently corrupting or corrupted endeavor.

          I acted in grade school (Hah: George Washington, Joseph) and even acted in a production by my college’s main acting group with a professional director up from the city. The time on stage was lots of fun. An adrenalin rush, I suppose, in retrospect. But the rest of the experience was pretty uncomfortable. The director up from the city was pretty aggressively gay and surrounded himself with a bunch of adoring (more sophisticated?) girl students who thought his feyness and bitchiness was endearing. I was naive and straight and had absolutely no idea what to make of the entire situation. Needless to say, I was not part of the “in” theater crowd although third parties said I was good in the part.

          I was subsequently sort of dragooned into acting in a student written and directed play and did a few readings for the part. It was a terrible play, made no sense, and I dropped out ASAP. A professor said the student writer/director was disappointed as I was “perfect” for the role. Which I suppose meant I should have stayed and done the part even though I thought the whole enterprise was a waste of time.

          In any event, I’m wondering now whether play acting isn’t an inherently corrosive activity. Or does it attract compromised people? All that make believe and spending time inhabiting a person you are not. Does it do something to people that’s not so great? Or does acting attract people who want to run away from something? I wiki actors and they are almost invariably from broken homes. Maybe responsible parents do keep their children off the stage.

          • First let me say I’m sorry you had a bad experience doing theater. It shouldn’t be that way.

            But with that said acting in school production at any level is nothing like acting professionally. Its a big shock to a lot of college students when they graduate and move on to work professionally that no one is interested in the theater games and acting exercises they played in class nor do most directors and other actors want to discuss in detail what that they are about to do on stage. Some do like to sit around and talk about it but not me. I’m of the Albee school of thought “Don’t tell , me show me. ” . In most productions I work on , I show up , do my job and go home. I have no interest in hanging out with the cast afterwards. I did when I was younger but not anymore.

            Acting is way too acceptable now. I wish more parents would limit their children from going on stage. That way I wouldn’t have to deal with 22 year old actors who want to discuss technique and motivation all the time. Mine boils down to show up and do your job.

            I think one of the worst things that has happened is the growth of the acting school industry. It use to be that you learned by doing it, that’s how I did it, I’ve been acting since I was 8 and after 47 years of doing this I’ve never had any formal training. I learned by being on stage not in a classroom. But now a kid , or most likely his parents , pay for them to go to a theater or acting school and when they graduate they all think they are going to be stars. It use to be a craft like any other but not anymore. Now it’s an “art form”.

          • “In any event, I’m wondering now whether play acting isn’t an inherently corrosive activity. Or does it attract compromised people? All that make believe and spending time inhabiting a person you are not. Does it do something to people that’s not so great? Or does acting attract people who want to run away from something? I wiki actors and they are almost invariably from broken homes. Maybe responsible parents do keep their children off the stage.”
            Other Bill: Wrong! (Trademark) And this reputation for actors persists to this day? We even have to share our patron saint, Genesius with LAWYERS and prostitutes!

        • Unfair, and a dangerous assertion. Lawyers don’t loses sleep over representing tobacco companies, either. Our liberties mean nothing if those necessary to facilitate our exercise of them refuse to do so because of their own beliefs.

          • Ok, professional actor here. I’ve worked with Jack, too. I’m sad he shuttered his company, but that’s another thing for another day.

            An actor picks what part they want to play, and hopes to get the chance to do it and tell the story. The actor gets to decide if they have any moral objection to it or not. But like Jack says, there’s nothing inherently immoral in just playing other people. Entertainment is not PER SE immoral. Personally, I wouldn’t do a political ad or a testimonial unless it were something I can support/buy, but that’s ME. I have done a political ad for a state referendum that will not AIR, because it was for a focus group and won’t air in the actual state to promote something I couldn’t vote for. I’ve done some really bad shows because I needed a paycheck or liked some aspect of the production. Mostly, we just want to tell stories (and pay bills). When the guy switched companies, I thought it was clever and amusing, as an actor who understands the biz and thinking of the ad guy who’s probably getting a promotion for the idea. I think the folks at Verizon are probably wishing they’d given him a longer noncompete clause.

            Playing a bad guy doesn’t make me a bad guy, just like having a bad guy thought doesn’t make you a bad guy. If I start murdering people after playing a murderer on TV or stage, we’ll have a different discussion. And bad guys are really, really fun to play… There’s a few more than 2 cents.

            • Thanks, Becky. Mostly rich actors pick and choose roles according to personal beliefs, and most of the time it’s disastrous. Jodie Foster comes to mind. George Clooney. Sean Penn.

              [ Becky is one of the most thoughtful and skilled actresses in the DC area….and yes, I miss the theater a lot too.]

    • Yes he does really wear those goofy glasses and yes he does talk like that in real life.

      He also wasn’t aloud to do any other commercials for five years while he was under contract to Verizon , after that for the next four years he was allowed some but not a lot and just recently he was allowed to do the Verizon ad as he is still under a limited contract to Verizon.

      Depending on how his contract was written, the “character” may not be owned by anyone as it is so close to how he is in real life. To insist a actor who makes his living not use his own personality in other ads would be career ending.

    • By your logic, Bill, every individual who ever gave a candid assessment of a former boss’ managerial skills is behaving unethically. Even if it is to a current employer.

      I’ve come of working age in an era when there is no expectation, either by employers or their employees, that the employer/employee relationship will be a permanent one. If there is no expectation of a permanent relationship on either side, and his contract and its clauses have all expired… why would it be unethical for him to perform work for a competitor?

      Can you imagine applying the same standard to every occupation? Pumped gas for Mobil? You’re behaving unethically every time you buy gasoline at Gulf, even if it is $0.20 cheaper. Performed surgeries at one hospital? You can’t ever advocate for another practice.

      It is a frankly ridiculous, when you apply this sort of a standard to nearly any other career… What possible benefit could it serve to hold actor’s to a higher standard than any other type of contract worker?

  5. I saw the ad and I wasn’t particularly
    upset by it. Of course that doesn’t make it ethical for Sprint to run it but anybody that switches services without doing some Independant research is being foolish. I haven’t checked Sprint’s earnings but my sense is that their market share is second tier in most cities.

  6. Yep, just as I suspected: Sprint is #4 in market share with Verizon and A T and T battling it out for numero uno. Don’t think I’ll be switching to Sprint soon.

  7. Part of Paul’s compensation for either commmercial could be a limited amount of free services on their network. So it could be that it it part testimonial. But we’ll never know…

    An LA pal of mine was in a Progressive commercial as a ‘real’ insured guy making a claim and being surprised by Flo at the counter. Nope- he’s an actor and was paid his SAG wages. If Geico calls, I hope he gets that gig, too. Actors need work to eat. Having noncompetes that make it impossible to do other jobs is fine IF the original company is giving you enough work. But if the campaign’s over and he’s STILL unable to work, is that really fair? You get laid off from ‘day’ jobs and they stop you from getting another one- does that happen in other industries? Not much, Because it’s unfair…

    • I’m sure that he has some kind of job waiting for him at Sprint if the commercial flops. He could always be used as a motivational speaker going to Sprint stores to be upbeat with depressed Sprint customer service reps.

  8. Yes, actors have to eat. That’s not the issue here. Does an actor need to take a role where he is literally biting a hand that fed him very handsomely (I assume) in the past? And go so far as to use the brand recognition that company invested heavily in against that company? Are groups of people that organize to function as a corporation not deserving of ethical behavior by those they interact with? I think this guy’s situation is a really peculiar one. Almost unheard of, I’d say. Would a Marlboro Man be fine with showing up in a Camel ad and in full Marlboro Man regalia saying, in a good faux cowboy drawl, “Howdy, I know I used to be a Marlboro Man, but you know what, they’re actually awful dadgum cigarettes. Now I smoke Camels. They’re way better. You should smoke Camels too. Adios.”

  9. And certainly any non-compete would not have stopped him from doing any work whatsoever. Probably just, you know (as HRC is wont to say, and say and say) cell phone TV ads.

    • I amend my statement above. He could very well have been non-competed from doing ANY TV ads. Again, Verizon had spent a TON of money on that campaign and that character, which investment would have been seriously diluted by having the actor show up huckstering who knows what. Oxyclean, I don’t know. And presumably that actor’s lawyer and agent extracted a sufficient payment for the non-compete going into the deal.

      I bet this situation will be noted by entertainment lawyers who are, as we speak, revising their non-compete clauses to say the the actor won’t EVER act in a competitor’s ad and use the character from the prior ad to attack the prior employer. Jesus H. Christ. How could a court find that sort of non-compete unenforceable even if its term was lives in being plus a million years?

      If I were an advertiser and saw this guy’s Sprint ad, in the future I’d use nothing but cartoon characters. They don’t need to eat on my nickle or otherwise.

      • Its not uncommon for contracts to have clauses to forbid any other commercial work.

        As to the character. He may well have the claim to it as he had been doing commercials for years before that. They may have hired him specifically because they liked his presence as this character. It most likely his intellectual property not theirs. Just as Ernst was the property of Jim Varney.

        If they could have stopped him they would have. They obviously didn’t have the legal claim to the character so they didn’t. Stan laurel couldn’t perform as the character Stan Laurel as he didn’t own the character. Lucille Ball got sued for using the Lucy character from I Love Lucy by Jess Oppenheimer who owned part of the character.

        • Just a note: non-competes are disliked in the law, and if they limit employment for too long, or are unreasonably restrictive, courts will usually refuse to enforce them.

          My favorite example of a performer being prevented from taking his character elsewhere: The San Diego Chicken. H had to become a NEW chicken….

              • I’m not raising a non-compete issue. I’m raising an outright attack issue. If he wanted to walk around saying, “Can you hear me now?” for AT&T, that’s probably fine. But he’s now getting paid by a competitor to play that character and slime the company that he did that character for for years, and a lot of money. Seems bush to me.

                • If he was a lawyer, it would be a Rule 1.9 violation. But actors are held to so such loyalties, no more than baseball players. The paycheck is the loyalty, and that’s appropriate.

                  When Sean Connery agreed to play 007 for another studio in Bond film competing with a Roger Moore Bond by Connery’s old production team, was he bush?

                  • The question would be, “Did Sean Connery do a full length Bond satire/attack movie for another studio?” It’s like John Wayne turning down an invitation to be in “Blazing Saddles.” Which he did, saying, “I’d love to. But I can’t.”

                    Athletes aren’t analogous. They compete against each other. My question is “Is it a good idea to have a spokesperson turn around and speak against his former employer. For profit?” Unless he’s a whistle-blower, I think not.

                    It just strikes me as more than a little interesting that the chorus of actors and directors all answer “Hell yes, it’s okay!” I’m just not sure one’s check book should be so determinative.

                    • “I’m just not sure one’s check book should be so determinative.”

                      Actors get paid to act. Period. I do not understand why you are having a problem comprehending that.

                      You show me an actor who goes around cherry picking his roles and Ill show you one that doesn’t work a lot.

                    • This is an ethics column. If we weren’t talking about actors, someone would be saying, “We need a new rationalization!” It’s “The artists’ Excuse, or: Actors Gotta Eat.”

                      I get that. But I have yet to meet a human who doesn’t have to eat to stay alive. Harry Reid would doubtless say “Politicians gotta eat! What politician can afford to act ethically? Show me an ethical politician and I’ll show you an unsuccessful politician! A politician that doesn’t win a lot of campaigns.”

                      And I still say this guy wasn’t playing a role. He was personally profiting off of attacking a former employer by essentially using the equivalent of inside information he’d gained while working for that employer in the past. Legal? Sure. Low character? Sure. Admirable? No.

                    • The job of acting has nothing to do with politics, except that it facillitates other artists—directors, writers—trying to express ideas and opinions through art. I have no problem with actors who choose to sacrifice paychecks out of principle, but the conduct passes the Kant test. If everybody did it and it was an ethical obligation, conservative writers and directors would have a vastly smaller talent pool with which to express their art than liberal writers. Is that healthy for art and society? Hell, no.

                      Designing Women was a funny, well-acted and blatantly feminist, left wing comedy by Clinton pal Linda Bloodworth-Thompson. It was justly famous for well-written feminist rants, written by Bloodworth-Thompson and delivered by actress Dixie Carter. Dixie Carter was a hard right conservative, it was revealed after the show. She was ACTING. Should she have refused to express the character’s political views, in her own way undermining the writer’s art and expression? Unprofessional and an abuse of her position. Should truck drivers who are concerned with climate change refuse to deliver a load of air conditioners?

  10. A truck driver concerned with climate change? If there is one, sure, he should stop driving an over the road truck all over the country and emitting tons of CO2 a year and insist that the railroads be re-invigorated so they can kill the trucking industry and the Oracle of Omaha can get richer on his purchase of Union Pacific.

    Again, my contention is that Paul is not acting in the Sprint ads. He pretty much says, “Hey, I’m that guy who used to play the Verizon guy and now I’m here [as myself] telling you Verizon is effectively ripping you off.” He’s not in character. He’s playing the guy who used to be the Verizon guy, i.e., himself. Sure, he’s an actor but he’s not acting, he’s just being a turncoat. And sure, he didn’t have to believe Verizon was wonderful in order for him to do the original ads for them, but I’m talking about what he’s doing now. Which is not acting. I’d say he’s now a hired spokesperson.

    I really think there’s a difference. (The commercial that aired last night during the Series seemed even more grating that the previous ones.)

    • And sure, professional actors don’t have to agree or disagree with the pieces they’re acting in. Like any other human being, I would assume actors would question whether they wanted to be involved in a production they had a problem with, however. Don’t was always ask ourselves, “Is this what I want to spend my limited time on Earth doing” on a regular basis?

      • Sure. Defense attorneys who don’t accept that they have a duty to defend guilty people shouldn’t be criminal defense attorneys. Actors who can’t separate their roles from their beliefs shouldn’t be actors…and for the most part, can’t be.

      • “I would assume actors would question whether they wanted to be involved in a production they had a problem with, however.”

        When actors start second guessing the script , the writer and the story to serve their own beliefs and purposes is when they should quit.

        I once did a show where my character had to say to his wife “You’re the nigger now” There was an audible gasp from the audience.” After the show an audience member asked me how I could say such a terrible word. I told her I didn’t, the character did, its in the script and to not say it would have not served the story and would have changed the character.

    • Again, my contention is that Paul is not acting in the Sprint ads. He pretty much says, “Hey, I’m that guy who used to play the Verizon guy and now I’m here [as myself] telling you Verizon is effectively ripping you off.” He’s not in character. He’s playing the guy who used to be the Verizon guy, i.e., himself. Sure, he’s an actor but he’s not acting,

      See, that’s why the AD is unethical. He IS acting. He’s playing a character like himself (he doesn’t give his last name), and acting as if its a testimonial. It isn’t. He’s being paid. He’s playing an actor who switched because of the service, but the ad wants people to believe he’s doing something else. Well, they’re the liars. Paul is acting.

        • This is the inherent issue with spokepeople. Actors onstage in a show where they really obviously are playing a character are easier for the audience to separate (usually- some people have issues with this). But when an actor becomes a spokeperson, as Paul did in these ads, it gets harder for the line to be drawn. But to Paul (and actors/people who understand it better), it’s still just acting (most likely). BUT the adguys WANT the audience to not know there’s a line. They want it as blurry as possible, because if *that* guy switched, then maybe there’s really something worth buying here! Advertising people want to get you to BUY what they’re selling. And for the most part, ethics don’t figure into it. I’m sure Jack could spend a lot more time on ads than he does…

    • What’s sad is that either you didn’t read the post carefully and are commenting ignorantly, making an ass of yourself, or you did read it and didn’t understand it. I didn’t say the guy was a turncoat. In fact I said the opposite.

      You’re an idiot, and I’m in a bad mood. Don’t come back. You’re too lazy and/or dumb to have commenting privileges.

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