AT&T goes ultra-geeky with its new ad campaign

AT&T(s t) is preparing to do an about-face in its advertising strategy. Instead of the “it’s not complicated” campaign, which features actor Beck Bennett arguing the virtues of AT&T’s network with children, AT&T’s new ads pretty much take an “in fact, it’s really complicated” attitude.

The new ad campaign, which was first reported by AdAge, feature a pair of field-service technicians fine-tuning some of the more arcane elements of AT&T’s network while interacting with everyday people. In one, they’re installing a small cell, a tiny base station designed to boost capacity in high-demand areas indoors and out — or as the more straitlaced engineer explains to a building employee, “It means you’ll be able to post from the break room.”

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In another ad, the duo are configuring a distributed antenna system (DAS), which divides up a cell’s capacity among several nodes, bringing coverage into all of the nooks and crannies of a venue. Instead of hiding the complexity of the system, AT&T emphasizes it. “Do you know how to optimize a nine-beam multi-beam antenna system?” one of the engineers asks a would-be job seeker. All of the ads end with the tagline “Building you a better network.”

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While the campaign might be perceived as showing AT&T engineers talking down to ordinary people, the ads are clever and charming enough that they don’t come off as dismissive to the audience. Rather, they show in an amusing way that AT&T is building something enormously complex. Perhaps it’s because I’m a geek as well, but I find that quite refreshing. Most mobile carrier ads focus on one of three basic concepts: fastest, cheapest or most coverage. There’s a lot more subtlety to the networks being built today.

Then again, AT&T might be focusing on complexity because it can’t really highlight speed, coverage or price today. Verizon’s(s vz) reputation is built on coverage and network reliability. If you want cheap, T-Mobile(s tmus) is the carrier to move to among the Big 4. And even though independent network tests named AT&T’s LTE network the fastest last year, it’s not going to keep that title very long as Verizon and T-Mobile’s new upgraded 4G networks come online.

I’m curious, though, to see how far AT&T will take this campaign. AT&T could just be using the term “small cell” as a stand-in for “crazy networking contraption we’ll never mention again,” or it could be trying to enter the term into the consumer lexicon.

Small cells will be important features of our future networks, densely layering 4G capacity into the most highly trafficked areas of the network and bringing stronger signals into hard-to reach indoor locations. AT&T happens to be the most aggressive U.S. carrier when it comes to small cells. This could be its first attempt to explain to the general public what that all means.