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Mark Wahlberg and a Prairie Dog Try to Woo Wireless Customers Back to AT&T

There’s a debate raging over how Mark Wahlberg should hold the prairie dog. The Hollywood star’s hands need to be a little lower, perhaps, and a flip towards the camera needs to be a little sharper, is the consensus.

It’s a stuffed prairie dog and Wahlberg is standing in the sunlit breakfast nook of an oceanside, multimillion-dollar mansion in Beverly, a suburb north of Boston, surrounded by cameras, lights and a cadre of staff for what looks like a major movie shoot.

With set decorators, makeup artists, caterers, drivers, gaffers, lighting adjusters, stand-ins and dozens of others, it could be the set of Ted 3 or Wahlberg’s next action blockbuster. Instead, it’s one of many sets around the country used to film one of the biggest marketing campaigns of the year: AT&T’s first television push combining pitches for its wireless, DirecTV video, and home Internet services. And Wahlberg is the star at the center of it all.

The borrowed mansion where AT&T filmed part of its new ad campaign.
The borrowed mansion where AT&T filmed part of its new ad campaign.
Photo credit: Aaron Pressman

The telecom giant is in the midst of a major makeover. After paying $67 billion for DirecTV and offering another $109 billion for Time Warner, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson thinks only his company will be able to offer the kind of converged, available everywhere entertainment experience consumers are craving. It’s a strategy born partly out of necessity. AT&T’s wired phone business has been shrinking for years. And its wireless business has lost regular monthly phone customers for nine quarters in a row, mainly to scrappier rivals T-Mobile and Sprint.

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So now a key piece of Stephenson’s converged strategy is AT&T’s bargain bundle, adding its Internet and app-based DirecTV Now service with 62 cable channels to a customer’s unlimited wireless plan for only $10 extra a month, with HBO thrown in free. And the new ad campaign, starting this week, is designed to drive home the message of AT&T’s bundle.

“We have a unique position and I’m trying to own that in the marketplace and trying to blur the lines between pay TV and wireless,” executive vice president for marketing in AT&T’s Entertainment Group, Brad Bentley, tells Fortune.

Tweaking Punchlines

On a sunny spring day last month back on the Beverly set, top ad execs from BBDO, the giant firm that won the combined AT&T account last year, along with people from AT&T’s own marketing team and the film industry professionals on site huddled to figure out just how Wahlberg should turn to the camera, prairie dog in hand, to deliver one of the signature punch lines for the campaign.

In a key spot dubbed “Terms and Conditions,” Walhberg will detail that consumers are demanding a new deal in wireless and entertainment. “From now on, the word television will no longer be defined as that thing over there on the wall,” he says in the commercial, offering one of the new demands. “We want all our things to be television things–phones, iPads, refrigerators, heart monitors, okay, maybe not heart monitors.”

The stuffed prairie dog, which will be digitally replaced with a shot of a real, live creature later in the production process, hits a line for AT&T’s unlimited data wireless plan. “Food, water, Internet, we need it to live,” Wahlberg gushes. “For all the streaming and the shopping and the newsing but most of all for the this,” he declares, flipping the prairie dog into view.

It might not be the funniest line in the history of television advertising, but it gets a solid laugh from the “video village,” in the Beverly mansion’s converted piano room where staff from BBDO, AT&T and other “creatives” sit in front of two small video monitors tracking the shoot in real time. The wealthy family that rents out the house for commercials–it was also the set for some of Tom Brady’s ads for Intel–has made sure their baby grand piano is all wrapped up and protected in one corner. The creatives watch take after take from here, seated on folding chairs, eyes glued to the screens, offering feedback and tips only after the director yells “cut.”

Ad executives shape AT&T's new campaign on set in Beverly, Mass.
Ad executives shape AT&T’s new campaign on set in Beverly, Mass.
Photo credit: Aaron Pressman

The shoot in Beverly is just a small part of the filming that was needed for the initial 10 AT&T spots that include cameos of other celebrities ranging from comedians Tracy Morgan and Rob Corddry to James Marsden, star of HBO’s West World. Wahlberg, who hasn’t been in many ads until now, traipsed through Boston streets and Los Angeles back lots to complete his part. Wahlberg got a reported $10 million for his participation.

AT&T’s Bentley, who joined the company with the DirecTV acquisition, made a personal recruiting trip to ensure Wahlberg signed on. Over a Sunday breakfast at the Polo Club in Beverly Hills in late February, Bentley made his pitch that only Wahlberg could connect to consumers with the right blend of humor and attitude.

“This is a very different approach than what AT&T has seen historically,” Bentley says.

Big Spender

AT&T spent $1.6 billion last year on TV, print, and digital advertising for all its brands, topping rival Verizon’s $1.3 billion outlay and more than rivals Sprint and T-Mobile spent combined, according to data compiled by Kantar Media. Telecommunications is one of the highest-spending categories in all of advertising, and AT&T’s budget has been at or near the very top of all companies the past few years. But spending is expected to increase even more this year as the wireless market has reached an ultra-competitive phase over the new unlimited plans.

“Much of the advertising in wireless is using celebrities and comedy but hasn’t combined the features with the benefits for consumers,” says Jill Hill, executive vice president at research and consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates. “But the new AT&T campaign is finally focused on the consumer.”

Verizon just last week refreshed its TV campaign led by Thomas Middleditch, star of the HBO comedy Silicon Valley, while Sprint and T-Mobile have been taking sharper aim at their larger rivals in their commercials. Sprint’s (S) Super Bowl ad featured a man faking his own death to escape from a Verizon contract.

But AT&T’s ads don’t mention its rivals and eschew the kinds of plan details and comparisons that have been a staple of the wireless market. “I don’t want to talk about lines and gigs of data,” Bentley says. “T-Mobile can talk about unlimited all they want but they don’t give you any content. We’re giving you the unlimited plan you want on the network you need but with the content you crave.”

Among rivals, T-Mobile has taken aim at AT&T most often, with frequent jibes from its outspoken CEO John Legere. T-Mobile’s (TMUS) strategy isn’t to acquire special content for customers, but to offer a better deal just on wireless–its unlimited plan starts at $15 less month than AT&T’s and it stopped tacking on extra fees and taxes in January.

Verizon, which has struggled to fend off the cheaper competitors lately, doesn’t usually view AT&T as its main rival. But the irony isn’t lost on AT&T executives that rival Verizon’s (VZ) ads currently feature Middleditch, one of HBO’s stars.

The Time Warner (TWX) acquisition, expected to close later this year if regulators approve, will put HBO in AT&T’s (T) hands. And the free HBO offer with unlimited wireless is already at the center of AT&T’s marketing strategy. So in a way, even Verizon’s commercials tout an aspect of AT&T’s bundle.

“Adding HBO in the mix,” Bentley crows, “it’s a game changer.”

(This story was updated on July 24 to correct that Wahlberg was holding a stuffed prairie dog)