Friday, January 8, 2010

The Soup Wars and Choosing a Cell Phone Plan

The current most raging advertising war seems to involve the Verizon / AT&T cell phone coverage maps. On my daily 15 yard walk from the subway to my office, I see about two dozen of the maps plastered all over the downtown storefronts. The maps are supposed to depict where you can get good Verizon or AT&T cell phone coverage. From the looks of the Verizon maps, Verizon service covers the entire country except for a few little blips in places where most people will never, ever in their entire lives step foot, and AT&T covers virtually nothing. The AT&T maps are about the exact opposite. Lawyers are on the scene. Lawsuits and countersuits are flying. It’s a battle royale. I have AT&T service, though I have no idea why. I think I started at some job at some point that had an AT&T deal or rep, or I had an office mate that used AT&T. Before seeing the maps all over the place, I completely and utterly did not give a shit about my cell phone service. When I try to call someone, I usually can, so that's pretty much that. But now, with all this cutting edge, obviously very scientific information posted all over the city, I have to think about whether I've been making the right decision. What if Verizon would be better for me? What if I've been depriving myself of my full potential all these years?!

Advertising wars have, I assume, been going on since around the time human beings began communicating with language. In my lifetime, the main ones that come to mind are Coke v. Pepsi, Chevy v. Ford and Mac v. PC, with a little sort of sideshow involving Campbell’s and Progresso soups. These past wars were really just battles in the culture war. Mac users, an overall wealthier and more educated crowd than the unwashed PC user masses, like to talk smugly about the design components of their computers and about the fact that they "work without crashing." I can't really characterize the two sides of the Chevy / Ford battle (when I owned a pickup truck, it was a Toyota). But a debate that has produced so many millions of "I'd rather push a [Chevy / Ford] than drive a [Ford / Chevy]" and Calvin pissing on a Ford / Chevy bumper stickers obviously resonates at some pretty deep level of our nation's personal identity. I can't explain the Coke / Pepsi thing either. The amount of collective time our society spent proselytizing about one or the other kind of carbonated sugar water was astonishing. But that was during the '70s. Maybe, other than wife-swapping and trying to find gas, there just wasn't that much to do back then. The brief flare up of the Campbell's / Progresso soup war (rising at one point to the level of a LaDainian Tomlinson Superbowl ad) doesn't merit much discussion. I think people have pretty much given up on eating soup altogether. McDonalds and Burger King are so deeply intertwined with our society that their PR campaigns are almost not really advertising any more. They're more like gravity or CSPAN broadcasts of congressional hearings - things that make up the very essence of how we live our lives, but that have become so ubiquitous as to be almost imperceptible.

OK, so advertising battles are nothing new. But what should I do about my cell phone service? Of all the ad wars, the AT&T / Verizon one seems like it should be the one most based on objective facts. All I need to know is, if ever I find myself walking down the street in Oskaloosa, Nebraska and needing to download a funny new ringtone, will I be able to do so? Cell phone service is based on cold, hard facts, not self-image. I've never heard someone say anything like "I would just never date anyone who's a Verizon subscriber..." or "well I'm not surprised, he is an AT&T subscriber after all..." My wife uses Verizon and I use AT&T. And of all the unbelievably stupid things we've fought about over the years, which cell phone providers we've chosen has never been one of them.

My friend Josh, the most logical decision maker I know, would tell me to make an Excel chart where I plug in percentage estimates of the amount of time I will likely spend in various parts of the country over the course of the year, cross reference that with service availability in each location, multiply by some cost per month factor and come up with an objective determination of which service is best for me. But the problem with this kind of analysis is that it would take some moderate amount of time and effort, which goes against my policy of doing the absolute bare minimum amount of work necessary to make a decision.

So how about letting society as a whole make the decision for me? James Surowiecki has a "wisdom of crowds" theory that says that independent, unaffiliated groups are, in the aggregate, mind-bendingly accurate in their determination of objective facts. When asked to determine the number of jelly beans in a jar, or a person's age, the aggregate determination of such groups is vastly more accurate than most individual guesses. A distinction has to be made between the wisdom of crowds and groupthink. The difference is that while groupthink results when people are isolated and holed up together (usually in a meeting room, with their boss), and no-one dares to derail the seeds of a horrible, ridiculous idea, the wisdom of crowds is supposed to be able to diffuse and correct whatever stupidity any one person comes up with. Groupthink was the process by which General Motors made the decision to produce the Pontiac Aztek. The wisdom of crowds was the reason GM discontinued production of the Aztek after about a month.

I understand that societal decisions are not always great. Decisions made by the masses are responsible for the Holocaust and the fact that Two and a Half Men is the most popular sitcom on TV. But deciding which company I should send my monthly $49.95 payment to? I may be willing to delegate that decision to the country at large. Whatever the breakdown is in market share, Verizon and AT&T each have millions of cell phone customers. And just the fact that both companies are still around must mean something, right? Crowds ferreted out the Pontiac Aztek almost immediately. The Chia pet is a strange anomaly - an idiotic ten dollar piece of shit that has managed to stay on the market for decades - but that can probably be chalked up to manic holiday gift-giving desperation. Yes, I'll just assume that if AT&T is still around after however many years of hawking cell phone service, its service must at least not so abysmally, horrifically terrible that all of its customers have defected and left it for dead. And that's good enough for me.

So maybe now I can put this decision to rest, and spend as little time each day thinking about my cell phone provider as I do about pickup trucks, soft drinks and soup.

1 comment:

Mr. X said...

I was told there would be soup?