Under pressure from the White House, AT&T and a group of smaller telecommunications firms have yanked newspaper advertisements in Washington that implied that upcoming administration decisions on local phone regulations could cost President Bush the election.
Voices for Choices, a coalition of phone companies trying to compete with the Baby Bells in local phone markets, quietly canceled print ads this month that featured a red-and-blue electoral map and mischievously claimed that millions of Americans who have “voted” to switch their local phone service would blame Bush if the administration adopts rules that stifle competition.
“If the government lets the Bell giants kill off local phone competition,” the ads stated, “there will be 19 million angry consumers wondering who to hold accountable.”
Instead, the ads angered Bush.
Speaking through a White House aide, Bush told representatives of the anti-Bell group to pull the plug on the ads, according to White House aides and telecom lobbyists.
“While we understand lobbying, these ads took an important public policy and economic issue and converted that to a political issue,” said a senior White House official.
The White House expressed “that we thought that was unfortunate and inappropriate.”
Peter Arnold, a spokesman for the Voices for Choices coalition, said the group switched to different ads after officials at the White House and Federal Communications Commission spoke to coalition members about the media campaign.
But he said Voices for Choices switched to a less political ad only after the coalition determined that the controversial ad had reached its target audience.
“Our understanding was that the point that we were raising with the map ad was made clear, so naturally we moved on to another topic,” Arnold said. “The message came out loud and clear and we are very proud of that.”
But other Voices for Choices members said the ads were pulled prematurely after White House officials complained.
“The White House was upset because the ad was a play on the map that decided the election. It made an assertion that [decisions about telecommunications regulations] could swing the election,” said one phone lobbyist involved.
The focal point of the ad, which ran in Roll Call and other publications, was a map of the United States in which states that voted for Bush in the 2000 presidential election were colored red and states that favored former Vice President Al Gore were blue.
For each state, the ad listed the number of local phone customers who have switched their local phone service from Baby Bells BellSouth Corp., SBC Communications, Verizon Communications or Qwest to a competing local carrier, such as AT&T, MCI or Allegiance Telecom.
Taken together, the two pieces of information on the map highlighted three key battleground states that stand the most to lose if the FCC adopts new rules for the local phone market that could reduce competition by favoring the Bells.
More than 3.3 million residents in Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania have ended their contracts with the Bells and signed up with an upstart company, according to the ad.
If those consumers lose that competition, the ad implies, they will blame Bush at the ballot box in November.
Bush lost the combined 63 electoral votes in Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania by a total of just 1 million votes.
But it will be tough for him to win re-election this year without posting strong results in the three traditionally bellwether states.
The new competition in the local phone market is the result of rules created by the 1996 Telecommunications Act that required the Baby Bells to rent their phone lines to their competitors at fair rates and terms.
“These consumers are finally enjoying the benefits of competition — lower prices, better service and companies that can no longer take them for granted,” the advertisement read.
However, the ad charges that upcoming administration moves could jeopardize the ability of consumers to sign up with competing local phone companies.
For example, the Bush administration and the FCC are currently deciding whether to appeal a federal court decision that many believe will make it easier for the Baby Bells to stamp out competition in the phone market.
“[A]t this moment, the very heart of local competition rules are under direct attack,” the ad stated.
After pulling the map ads, Voices for Choices began running new advertisements that criticize the Bells for seeking further deregulation of the local phone market.
In the new ad, a well-dressed businessman holds a raggedy cardboard sign that reads: “Need More Deregulation: Spent my last $25 billion in cash on a wireless company.”
One telecommunications lobbyist involved in the Voices for Choices said that new ads “make our substantive case without the political overlay.”