NetZero Launches New TV Spots

Partially ad-supported free ISP NetZero released some sparse details of its new ad campaign Monday, which drops the Cold War-themed “Defenders of the Free World” tagline that it had used in TV spots since 1999.

Los Angeles-based Robert Chandler & Partners handled the new spots’ creative work. RCP also designed NetZero’s previous “Defenders” campaign, memorable for its black-and-white spots that depicted tense Congressional hearings and defecting Russian pilots in search of free Internet access.

Now, a new campaign, which features a heroine, “Free Fighter,” continues to promote Westlake Village, Calif.-based NetZero as a champion of free Internet access. But the campaign changes tone slightly to focus on NetZero’s high quality of service in addition to its free access.

In the campaign’s two spots, Free Fighter “propose[s] a juxtaposition that basically asks users to question why [users] would pay for free Internet access when quality Internet access is free,” said Brian Woods, NetZero’s chief marketing officer.

The first ad, set in a Blade Runner-like future, shows Free Fighter comparing waiting in line to enter a nightclub to waiting on line “for the privilege” of paying for Internet access. The second ad features a similar concept with people waiting for delayed flights in an airport terminal.

The spots also introduce a new tagline: “NetZero — not just free Internet access, the best Internet access.”

The ad buy includes cable television and airtime during NetZero’s NBA halftime sponsorship on NBC, “NetZero @ The Half,” which NetZero will sponsor until 2002.

“We used [the earlier ads] to introduce the concept of what NetZero is … In at time when not many people knew free Internet access is available. So those were very effective for that,” said Woods. “As our branding became more and more successful and our reach and awareness grew, and with the launch of the new NBA season, we decided to update our image and add slightly more compelling copy.”

NetZero did not disclose financial details about the work, but Woods said campaign spending was “in the millions.”

The new campaign comes in a critical time for NetZero’s positioning: the firm has been walking a fine line in terms of branding since it said in December that it would begin charging some users for access.

The fee, which applies to NetZero users who access the Internet more that 40 hours per month, seems to have thrown a monkey wrench into its “Defenders of the Free World” positioning. At the same time it introduced its new service charge, NetZero began calling itself “a leading provider of Internet access services and targeted marketing solutions” in marketing material, instead of “a leading provider of advertising- and commerce-supported Internet access.”

And with a new business model and new positioning, the company is banking that a new series of ads will sidestep prickly questions about the conditions NetZero is applying to free Internet access — and why the “Defenders of the Free World” would need to charge users at all — in favor of focusing more on quality of service.

Aside from the complexity associated with communicating such a position, the new branding efforts could lead to additional pitfalls: NetZero’s new model and positioning seems closer to that of competing ISP Juno, which also offers some fee services, in addition to fee-based, ads-free access. Juno also recently said that it would take steps to limit free users’ drain on system resources.

But with the old “Defenders” campaign still fresh in the minds of many consumers, and by continuing to emphasize its now-conditionally free service, it’s uncertain whether NetZero’s new positioning ad ads — which feature a disclaimer about the fee — will gain as much traction as its earlier work.

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