Verizon Goes With First Responder Theme For Super Bowl Ads Despite Controversy

January 18, 2019, 5:01 AM UTC

Following a public relations black eye involving firefighters last year, Verizon plans to unveil a new Super Bowl ad campaign this weekend that is focused on first responders.

The ad spots, which feature 11 NFL players and one coach who whose lives were saved by first responders, comes after Verizon received criticism for slowing mobile data connections and limiting service of Santa Clara County firefighters while they battled California’s Mendocino Complex wildfire in August. Verizon ultimately apologized and said it would no longer impose data caps on first responders.

A promotional video that Verizon released in October praising first responders drew more criticism due to the wildfire incident.

The new ads, part of a campaign called “The Team That Wouldn’t Be Here,” won’t address the firefighter controversy, Diego Scotti, chief marketing officer of Verizon, tells Fortune. “The message is larger than that,” he says. “This message is not to cover for that—we own it and we move forward. At the same time, these are stories that need to be told.”

Echoing the earlier apologies from other Verizon (VZ) executives, Scotti says the carrier has made changes to prevent such incidents in the future. “Our focus and dedication to first responders has been since the creation of the company,” he says. “I think what happened in California was an unfortunate situation. I feel like we didn’t live up to our own promise of excellence when the process failed. We learned from it and we have put in place a lot of things to ensure that doesn’t happen again.”

In one of the commercials, Carson Tinker of the Jacksonville Jaguars describes how he was severely injured during a tornado in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and was rescued by first responders. “Thank you is nowhere near enough,” the NFL player says in the 60-second ad, which is slated to run during playoff games this weekend. All of the ads and an accompanying documentary were directed by Peter Berg, the filmmaker behind Hollywood movies like Patriots Day and Deepwater Horizon.

Verizon will also contribute up to $1.5 million to First Responders Outreach, a nonprofit that provides grants for emergency relief, training, and equipment to the industry. The money will flow as $1 for every time a consumer posts to Twitter or Facebook using the hashtag #AllOurThanks between Jan. 18 and Feb. 3.

Raising awareness–and charity dollars–by getting customers active on social media is an increasingly poplar tactic for corporate campaigns. During the World Series, for example, T-Mobile donated $10,000 for every home run to a military veteran-run hurricane relief group called Team Rubicon. In addition, every time a consumer posted the hashtag #HR4HR on Twitter (TWTR) or Instagram, T-Mobile (TMUS) donated an additional $2 per posting.

Verizon’s new ads about first responders reprise the same theme that the company used in its Super Bowl ads last year. The 2018 commercials featured ordinary people rescued by first responders thanking the people who helped them.

Competition among the four major wireless carriers has cooled from the price cutting wars of a few years ago. Verizon added 650,000 net new monthly phone customers in the fourth quarter, 50% more than a year earlier, though trailing T-Mobile’s gain of 1 million such customers in the quarter.

Verizon’s media strategy of debuting the campaign two weeks before the Super Bowl, with additional spots set to debut during the big game, is designed to spark conversation around the stories and build narrative tension that will attract more consumer attention, Scotti says. He promises that the spots being reserved for the Super Bowl will still contain “a big surprise.”

“In the context of a campaign and a story, it will unfold throughout the two weeks,” Scotti explains. “You used to either reveal everything before or you wait and you surprise everybody at the Super Bowl. What we’re trying to do is (to find) a way of engaging consumers in a conversation during the two weeks prior to the Super Bowl but still have that moment of surprise and emotion.”

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