AT&T 'Attack Ad' on T-Mobile Offers Some Friendly Reminders

AT&T posted arguably the world's gentlest 'attack ad" in several newspapers to tell the "truth" about rival T-Mobile's network.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere delighted Consumer Electronics Show (CES) attendees back in January, cracking jokes about how AT&T's network in New York is "crap" and porn will be the undoing of Verizon Wireless' mobile share plans.

AT&T was not amused.

The carrier responded by taking out full-page ads in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today March 1.

Interestingly, T-Mobile's name is higher up on the page and in larger font.

"The truth about T-Mobile's network," says the ad in very large letters, and then in a smaller, lighter font, "compared to AT&T."

It then says:

2x more

dropped calls

2x more

failed calls

50% slower

download speeds

At the very bottom of the page, beside a smartphone, it says in much, much smaller font: "Don't be fooled by their misleading claims. For the better network experience, count on AT&T."

At a glance, it's possible a reader could think T-Mobile is offering 2x more of something (and more is always better, right?).

T-Mobile Chief Marketing Officer Mike Sievert told Bloomberg, "Wow. Looks like we struck a chord. AT&T doth protest too much. Glad they're spending their money to print our name."

An AT&T spokesperson said in a statement, "T-Mobile's advertising is a combination of misguided and just plain wrong." AT&T's new ad, he added, is a "friendly reminder of the fact that independent third-party testing says AT&T's network delivers faster speeds and fewer dropped calls than [T-Mobile]."

At CES, Legere told an audience, during a moment of relative seriousness, "We haven't even gotten started on our network, and right now, proven, our network is faster than AT&T's and Verizon's in New York City."

He also warned that T-Mobile was changing its branding tactic and its competitors could expect it to "go right at it, with attitude." He added, "You'll see some swagger, you'll see some attitude, you'll see some aggressive attacks on our competition. All in fun, of course."

He went on to tell a few anecdotes about anti-AT&T cartoons that he's seen, one of which said, "I saw more honesty in a ad than in AT&T's coverage maps."

If AT&T is particularly sensitive to such teasing, it has good reason. During the years that it alone offered the Apple iPhone, consumer mobile phone use evolved dramatically and AT&T struggled, particularly in New York and San Francisco, to meet user demand. AT&T's brand reputation suffered a (some would say much-deserved) beating.

The iPhone has since become available on multiple networks, and AT&T has aggressively rolled out both Evolved High Speed Packet Access (HSPA+) and—it would rather underscore these days—Long Term Evolution (LTE) 4G technology. AT&T's 4G network—the largest in the nation, it says—now covers 288 million people. Its LTE network now covers more than 170 million people and is available in 147 markets.

T-Mobile says its 4G network covers 220 million Americans, though it has yet to officially roll out LTE. Announcing the company's fourth-quarter 2012 results Feb. 27, T-Mobile officials said they are speeding up the launch of their LTE service, which will reach 100 million people by mid-2013 and more than 200 million people by year's end.

T-Mobile's LTE rollout is a result of AT&T's failed attempt to purchase the smaller carrier in 2011.

That its build-out is arriving so far behind its rivals, T-Mobile has said, is due to the year it spent in limbo, waiting to see if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would approve AT&T's proposal. (It didn't.) But the money that it's funding the build-out with comes from AT&T's coffers. As part of its acquisition contract, AT&T agreed to pay T-Mobile $4 billion and hand over some spectrum if all didn't go according to plan.

Given T-Mobile's warnings about how aggressive it intends to get, AT&T may want to develop some feistier ads. All in fun, of course.

Follow Michelle Maisto on Twitter.