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Comcast, Verizon duke it out

Ad blitz gets personal as firms spar for cable customers

Comcast is running a 'Don't Fall for FIOS' campaign (above right) to fight interest in Verizon. Above left, Verizon ads feature a young, friendly installer explaining the benefits of its fiber-optic TV service to a dopey cable guy. Watch TV spots from both ad campaigns at the right of this page. Comcast is running a "Don't Fall for FIOS" campaign (above right) to fight interest in Verizon. Above left, Verizon ads feature a young, friendly installer explaining the benefits of its fiber-optic TV service to a dopey cable guy. Watch TV spots from both ad campaigns at the right of this page.
By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / September 1, 2009

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It’s hard to escape the cable wars in Boston.

In an effort to gain market share, Verizon, which delivers cable TV through its fiber-optic network, and Comcast have been running dueling ads in the Boston region. The spots sometimes air back-to-back in a televised tit for tat: Some Comcast ads feature informed customers defending their cable provider to a pushy Verizon installer who appears at their front door or inside their car, while Verizon ads feature a young, friendly installer explaining the benefits of Verizon’s fiber-optic TV service called FiOS to a dopey cable guy.

“The Comcast and Verizon cable war is like the soda wars of the ’80s, the cellphone wars of the ’90s,’’ said Geoff Klapisch, a media and ad professor at Boston University. “The ads have become more focused on the competition. They’ve diluted it down to ‘us versus them.’ ’’

Media and cable industry observers say the ads are the latest salvo in the cable wars as Verizon continues expanding its footprint in New England, where Comcast is the largest provider. Comcast is trying to attract and retain customers at a time when people are eyeing their cable bills as a way to cut discretionary spending, they say. While there are other options such as cable operator RCN Corp., it is Verizon and Comcast that have been taking shots at each other through TV ads.

“Verizon is coming into the area and wants to compete. Comcast is firing back,’’ said Steve Effros, an adviser to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association in Washington, D.C. “They can’t afford to go into price wars. It costs too much. They are going to compete on the edges . . . my service is better than yours.’’

Verizon began running its ads first. Officials at Verizon, which has been featuring its cable installer character and his curious competitor for the past year, said they plan to continue the campaign. One recent ad features a character who is depicted as a rival red-bearded cable installer placing fliers under car windshields when he is interrupted by a young Verizon FiOS installer who boasts of the benefits of FiOS.

Verizon, which declined to break out numbers for New England, said it has 2.5 million subscribers nationally to its FiOS TV service, or an 82 percent increase in June from the previous year. One estimate from 2008 showed that Verizon had more than 78,000 FiOS TV customers in Massachusetts, up from 12,000 in 2006, according to the state Department of Telecommunications and Cable.

Verizon FiOS is not available in Boston, but the company has been slowly rolling out its network of fiber-optic cables for telephone, cable TV, and Internet service in Massachusetts since 2006. So far, 99 cities or towns have the service, including Braintree and Newton.

“We continue to expect FiOS to grow and bring in more customers,’’ said Geoff Walls, executive director of marketing, communication, and branding for Verizon. “We want to convey very clearly that FIOS is a game-changing experience when it comes to your TV and Internet experience.’’

Comcast, the largest cable company in the country, began firing back with commercials parodying Verizon ads in June. One spot shows a cable customer named Dolores telling an eager Verizon cable guy her reasons for sticking with Comcast.

Comcast, which has more than 1.6 million customers in Massachusetts through its phone, cable, and high-speed Internet offerings, said it also plans to continue running its ads. Additionally, the company has rolled out a new series of spots featuring basketball player Shaquille O’Neal and actor-lawyer Ben Stein. Comcast also unveiled another new marketing campaign, called the “Comcast Guarantee,’’ that cuts $20 off a customer’s bill if a repairman is late.

“In Boston, we’ve been competing with alternative providers for years,’’ said Mark Adamy, vice president of sales and marketing for Comcast in Greater Boston. “We welcome the competition because it clarifies in the consumer mind that Comcast really delivers.’’

Neither company would say how much more money it is spending on advertising in Boston. Verizon ranked second nationally in advertising spending with $3.7 billion in 2008, according to Advertising Age magazine. Comcast, with $669.8 million in ad spending last year, came in number 60 in the same list.

Both companies have launched sites to rebut the other’s spots. Comcast’s site carries a banner that declares “Don’t Fall For FIOS’’ and details Comcast’s features, while Verizon introduced a new site, “Fact on FiOs Hub,’’ yesterday to dispel any inaccuracies.

“The competition has risen to a point that in order to stand out, to extol their benefits, they have gone as negative as politicians do,’’ said Chris Cakebread, who teaches advertising at Boston University. “This is like [Muhammad] Ali and [Joe] Frasier going at it.’’

That has left some viewers caught in the crossfire. “It’s confusing,’’ said RJ Donofrio, a Boston Verizon customer who is interested in signing up for FIOS, even though the service is not available here. “I can kind of get what they are saying, but it’s not clear what the difference is, how much better or faster each is.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.

Watch the TV spots