Advertising: A Spokesman Finds Fame Interviewing Tiny Experts

July 3rd, 2013

The comedian and writer Beck Bennett, 28, began to anchor a near-omnipresent national campaign for AT&T in November.

How ubiquitous are those AT&T commercials with the inquisitive guy talking earnestly with the cute, lippy children? So ubiquitous that the guy — a comedian, actor and writer named Beck Bennett — sometimes finds himself, despite his best intentions, watching himself on television.

“They catch me by surprise,” Mr. Bennett said of the spots. “I’ll be at a bar with friends on a Friday or Saturday, and they come on.”

“It’s pretty surreal,” he added.

In nearly two dozen commercials so far, Mr. Bennett plays a deadpan interlocutor who takes children seriously, drawing them out in wry exchanges that are partly scripted and mostly improvised — or, as Mr. Bennett describes it, “like ‘The Colbert Report’ meets ‘Kids Say the Darnedest Things.’ ”

In one spot, a child triumphantly shouts “infinity times infinity” as the biggest number any of them can think of, prompting Mr. Bennett to gesture like his head will explode.

In another, which has run in a near-endless loop on television lately, a little girl says she’ll use the money she saves to buy a “changer machine” to turn her brother into a puppy.

“Couldn’t you just buy an actual puppy?” Mr. Bennett asks.

“Yeah, but if my brother’s a puppy,” she says, “I could bring him to show and tell and say, ‘Hey everybody, here’s my puppy-brother.’ ”

“Well,” Mr. Bennett declares, “When you say it like that, it makes perfect sense.”

With that kind of delivery, Mr. Bennett, 28, has been widely credited with keeping viewers engaged (along with the charming children) despite the thousands of times the spots are appearing each day, locally and nationally, on broadcast and cable television. They can also be watched on the AT&T channel on YouTube. There are also radio and online versions. The commercials began running in November as part of an AT&T campaign, created by the BBDO Atlanta division of BBDO North America, that carries the theme “It’s not complicated.”

“Verizon, in its ads, was making a superiority claim, saying, ‘We’re bigger,’ ” said Gary M. Stibel, chief executive at the New England Consulting Group in Norwalk, Conn. “AT&T puts on an adult with a bunch of kids who say, ‘Faster is better than slower’ and ‘Bigger is better than smaller.’ The take-away is ‘AT&T is better.’ ”

Although the AT&T campaign is still in its early days — compared with a long-running campaign like “Reach out and touch someone,” which AT&T ran from 1979 to 1984 — Mr. Beck seems poised to join a lengthy list of actors who become synonymous with the brands they advertise by dint of the popularity of the campaigns, how often the campaigns appear or both.

Others include John Houseman, who declared in ads for Smith Barney, “We make money the old-fashioned way — we earn it”; and Jan Miner, who played a manicurist named Madge in commercials for Palmolive dishwashing liquid.

David Christopher, chief marketing officer at the AT&T Mobility division of AT&T, praised Mr. Bennett’s role in making the AT&T campaign “wildly successful, more so than we could’ve imagined,” as demonstrated by measurements like views on YouTube — one of the most popular had 1.18 million views as of Tuesday evening — and positive comments in social media.

“His tone is deferential and his comedic timing is awesome; the whole construct works,” Mr. Christopher said. “It’s the perfect mix of hard-hitting, competitive messages with cute and compelling content.”

During the first three months of this year, the most recent period for which data are available, AT&T spent $ 504 million to buy advertising in major media, according to Kantar Media, a division of WPP that tracks ad spending. Although that total includes many other campaigns in addition to Mr. Bennett’s commercials, it is indicative of how frequently the spots turn up; the sheer weight can drive home the AT&T brand name for those viewers who are so entertained that they may miss or forget who the sponsor is.

Mr. Bennett’s effectiveness may stem from the time he has spent honing his skills in playing a character who interviews children, as shown on a Web series, “Fresh Perspectives,” that he created in 2011. A year later, he auditioned for, and landed, an online campaign for AT&T, “Brackets by Six-Year-Olds,” in which he asked children to select teams that could win the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament. The response to that campaign led to the creation of the “It’s not complicated” commercials and Mr. Bennett’s signing of a long-term contract.

“We thought, ‘We should use this guy for something bigger,’ ” said David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer at BBDO North America in New York.

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