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.
Facts: USA Today