Tony Hallett's After These Messages: 3's mad ad

A Chinese girl, '70s soft rockers Chicago and 3G...

A Chinese girl, '70s soft rockers Chicago and 3G...

The subject of my first column in this series, all the way back in February 2003, was the UK pre-launch campaign of third-generation mobile operator 3. Now I find myself coming full circle.

The latest style of TV ad from the operator is, frankly, nuts - but I sort of like it and what it stands for.

First, the context. When I last considered 3 - and, let's face it, this column has cast an eye over plenty of other operators who are fair game given their huge advertising spend and need to be inventive - for all the company's faults I left feeling fairly assured they would at least be great at promoting what they do.

Since that time, however, their messages have been somewhat mixed. For a spell we were treated to actress Anna Friel, if I remember correctly (was I hallucinating?), posing as a mermaid, going on about how simple the 3 tariffs are, as mermaids are wont to do.

Then the operator went all basic on us. 3 logos zoomed around TV screens as the company made direct comparisons to how much a certain call will cost with rivals. This is an approach several operators are comfortable with taking - current T-Mobile UK billboard ads do the same thing.

But now we get something different again, something completely out of left field. Ads in various advertising media such as billboards inform us that 3 'likes sharing', for example. Ignore the cartoon-like bubbles for a moment - a detail oxygenated O2 are said to be none too happy about - and ignore the fact they probably don't mean file-sharing, as in illegal copying (mainly), something many of the operator's media partners would frown upon.

No, a new series is positioning 3 for what it enables. So on to today's example. The first couple of times I saw the latest TV ad I thought I was getting something from HSBC. A small Chinese girl at school - she can't be more than five or six years old - runs out into her playground looking for a place to eat her packed lunch.

She runs through what look like dozens of bright red silk sheets or towels hanging up, conjuring an image of a China of film director Zhang Yimou as much as HSBC or Hutchison Whampoa, 3's ultimate parent.

Another child is following her, seemingly trying to steal her lunch. Eventually the second girl does get her hands on the lunch box, opens it and eyes a ripe cheery, also bright red.

By this stage, if this were the first time you watch this mini-film, you would have no idea where this is going. Only then the cherry, looking somewhat like a little face from the girl's point of view, starts to sing. And not just sing but belt out Chicago's 'If you leave me now (you'll take away the biggest part of me, Ooh ooh, no baby, please don't go)'.

See what I mean? This is, to say the least, unexpected.

When the naughty lunch-stealing girl then promptly screams and runs away, the original girl gets the cherry, smiles - like she's been expecting this rendition all along - and scoffs the cute piece of fruit down. Gulp.

The ad ends and we get the message that 3 'likes music'. We are left to make the connection, as it were, that 3's network and handsets are supposedly good for downloading and listening to music. (This writer hasn't yet tried that out.)

Some people, mainly people I suspect who would never properly consider buying a 3G phone, will look on this ad as another piece of modern-day madness. OK, I'm thinking of my dad when I write that.

But some people will get it. I may be harsh on some of 3's tactics - the constant changing of its messaging;, its walled garden approach to content; problems with its network and customer support according to email is sent; the lack of a data card offering - but fundamentally its existence is to be welcomed.

While some in financial centres around the world have written off any chance Hutchison has in 3G around the world - not in telecoms generally, note - I for one wish the company well. Some would say that isn't for me to say but I would argue that Vodafone and the rest of the field would not have pressed on with their 3G plans to the extent they have without a new entrant raising the bar. Others, less charitably, would say they have never heard of a hare winning a greyhound race.

Without a 2G customer base in major markets such as Italy and the UK it has been difficult for 3 to stake its claim and a policy of aggressively pricing voice calls and winning users that way hasn't been without its critics.

But the latest mad ad and a campaign that highlights the kind of features associated with broadband and 3G - file-sharing, entertainment and so on - is to be applauded. I can't help feeling there is still a lot of the story of 3 to be told and that we will see future twists and turns in the way it advertises.