Ina Fried

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ATT’s New Ads Tout Network Enhancements, While Sprint Spots Extol the Virtues of Competition

Well aware of complaints about dropped calls and other issues, AT&T has been spending billions of dollars to improve its network.

But in the last month, the company has started doing something else: Speaking up about just where it is putting those billions.

Around the middle of last month, AT&T started an advertising campaign in San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C., highlighting specific network improvement projects in those areas. The highly local campaign includes drive-time radio ads, TV spots and even text messages to customers. In the Web and print advertisements, the company is touting a picture of the city in question along with a giant number representing the number of cell sites being added this year. Some of the text messages get even more specific, touting a specific nearby cell tower project.

The ad effort, created by ad shop BBDO, has recently expanded to include a bunch of new cities, Los Angeles, Nashville, New York and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., among them.

Perception is always important in the cellphone market, which must win back its customers every couple of years. For AT&T, its image is even more important as it looks to build public support around its planned $39 billion T-Mobile USA acquisition.

Speaking of that proposed merger, Sprint has launched new ads extolling the value of competition–something Sprint says will be harmed if the AT&T-T-Mobile deal is allowed to continue.

“Competition is everything,” read one full-page Sprint ad that ran in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle. “Competition is the steady hand at our back, pushing us to faster, better, smarter, simpler, lighter, thinner, cooler. Competition is the fraternal twin of innovation.”

AT&T’s ads, meanwhile, are designed not so much to address the merger, but to tout one of the things it is most frequently knocked for: network quality, especially when it comes to dropped calls on the iPhone.

Ironically, some of the most pointed anti-AT&T advertising has come from the company’s would-be merger partner, T-Mobile. (The company has recently stopped mentioning AT&T by name when it bashes rivals for their poor quality or added fees.)

But even as it hopes to boost its image and get credit for the local work it is doing, AT&T must strike a tricky balance. The company wants to get credit for its network investment, but doesn’t want to be seen as talking about how it is fixing the problem as opposed to just fixing it. For now, the company has decided to keep the campaign relatively small, though it isn’t giving out spending figures.

What do you think, all you San Francisco iPhone-touting hipsters? Do you want to know where AT&T is building its latest tower or would you rather just be surprised one day when your call doesn’t drop?

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