When Verizon went after wireless competitor AT&T with a “There’s a Map for That” commercial showing AT&T’s inferior nationwide 3G coverage in the United States, AT&T was caught off guard.

Its response: file a lawsuit. The justification: AT&T believed that the map was deceptive and that consumers would not understand that its map excluded areas where 2G coverage is available.

After hitting Verizon with a lawsuit, AT&T made the following statement:

In essence, we believe the ads mislead consumers into believing that
AT&T doesn’t offer ANY wireless service in the vast majority of the
country. In fact, AT&T’s wireless network blankets the US, reaching
approximately 296M people. Additionally, our 3G service is available in
over 9,600 cities and towns. Verizon’s misleading advertising tactics
appear to be a response to AT&T’s strong leadership in smartphones.
We have twice the number of smartphone customers… and we’ve beaten
them two quarters in a row on net post-paid subscribers. We also had
lower churn — a sign that customers are quite happy with the service
they receive.

For its part, Verizon changed some of the language displayed in the commercial but responded to AT&T’s motion for a temporary restraining order with a 53 page rebuttal that added insult to injury:

AT&T seeks emergency relief because Verizon’s side-by-side,
apples-to-apples comparison of its own 3G coverage with AT&T’s
confirms what the marketplace has been saying for months: AT&T
failed to invest adequately in the necessary infrastructure to expand
its 3G coverage to support its growth in smartphone business, and the
usefulness of its service to smartphone users has suffered accordingly.

Unfortunately for AT&T, the company’s motion for a temporary restraining order was denied Wednesday by a federal judge in Atlanta. This doesn’t mean that AT&T’s claim has been dismissed. But it does mean that AT&T will have to wait for its day in court without protection from Verizon’s “There’s a Map for That” onslaught.

So AT&T is doing what it probably should have done in the first place: fighting back. In a new commercial starring American actor Luke Wilson, AT&T reminds everyone that it offers the fastest 3G network, allows customers to talk and surf the web at the same time, has the most popular smartphones (read: iPhone) and provides access to over 100,000 mobile apps (read: iPhone). In other words, it’s seeking to reframe the debate. That’s a smart, common sense move and AT&T should continue applying this approach with future commercials. Commercials that are hopefully a bit more creative and entertaining.

In my opinion, however, it’s going to take a lot more than commercials to for AT&T to come back from this. The company’s litigious response to Verizon’s commercial was a real boon to Verizon and has probably given Verizon far more media value than it spent dollar-wise developing its “There’s a Map for That” commercial and buying ads. The big problem for AT&T in this case: those commercials highlight a serious competitive disadvantage AT&T faces vis-à-vis Verizon — its 3G coverage.

AT&T isn’t disputing that part of the commercial. Which highlights the real lesson here: it’s a lot easier for the competition to go on the offense when you lack a strong defense. Whatever happens in court, AT&T’s focus should probably be on boosting its defense. For better or worse, Verizon has provided a map for that.


Photo credit: nodomain1 via Flickr.