Opening New Markets
MCI’s advertising revolutionized the way telecommunication services were sold in America. AT&T never needed to advertise, because they had always been the only phone company. In order to succeed and compete with AT&T, MCI needed to make a lasting impression with their advertisements.
1984 was a big year for MCI; AT&T was expected to finally divest itself of the Regional Bell Holding Companies. For the first time, customers everywhere would be able to choose their long-distance carrier. Equal access had arrived, and with it, MCI and AT&T would both pay the same amount to interconnect with the local Bell companies.
MCI needed to be more efficient and offer better service than AT&T, but most of all, it needed to make sure the public knew it. MCI would only succeed in equal access by virtue of better marketing.
Charleston, West Virginia, was designated by the Consent Decree to be a testbed for equal access. The town was large enough to provide a representative sample size, but small enough that a failure would not effect a large area.
MCI’s goal in Charleston was to capture 10-15% of the market, the same amount they hoped to gain nationally. To succeed in Charleston, MCI launched an all-out blitz on the city with mailings, door-to-door sales, celebrity spokespeople, and press conferences by William McGowan and other MCI executives. In the end, MCI captured 12% of the Charleston market.
With equal access in full swing after Charleston, MCI continued their aggressive marketing strategy. Their goal was to remain the less expensive alternative to AT&T. Thanks to equal access, MCI customers no longer had to dial long number codes and could simply dial "1" before the long distance phone number.
MCI continued to use every form of media to advertise and offered promotional savings for new and existing customers.
MCI produced a number of memorable television commercials that helped the company attract new customers. Many MCI commercials demonstrated the difference between their rates and AT&T’s. A favorite commercial style was the side-by-side rate comparison of two identical phone calls, one on MCI, the other on AT&T.
MCI also liked to poke fun at AT&T’s "reach out and touch someone" slogan. In response to this slogan, MCI advertised reaching out and touching someone for less.
One of MCI's more memorable television commercials was that of a mother and father receiving a call from their son who was away at college. The commercial ended with the mother crying, not because she missed her son, but because the of the expense of a long-distance call made through AT&T.
MCI became well-known for using celebrity spokespeople. Burt Lancaster and Joan Rivers were the first two celebrities used by MCI. However, the use of celebrities was not without its drawbacks. While Burt Lancaster’s commercials received no such complaints, some customers were offended by the comedy style of Joan Rivers.
MCI had to be careful in choosing when to air their commercials. When MCI aired commercials during the Dr. Ruth show, they received a massive amount of customer complaints due to what many people felt were inappropriate and indecent discussions on Dr. Ruth’s show. In response, MCI pulled their advertising from that time slot.