Verizon Harnesses iPhone Backlash for Viral Ads

[show=iphonebacklash size=large]I’ve never had an iPhone. When I was in college, I got a deal on a free cell phone through Sprint (s s), and since then I’ve stayed with that carrier. And not out of blind loyalty: Its service was reliable overall, its rates reasonable, and I go to a lot of tech conferences. Why is that important? Well, because I’ll stand outside a conference hall, phone in hand, and watch the 10 people near me poke at their iPhones impatiently, hoping to retrieve the calls dropped by AT&T (s t). As spiffy as some iPhone apps are, it was little incentive to change.

But a recent spurt of ads from Verizon (s vz) have been kicking the iPhone where it hurts, attacking AT&T’s service, the lack of open development, and other consumer complaints. And those ads have gone viral. After two years of Apple’s (s aapl) dominance, it appears that the rival service provider finally feels safe enough to throw some punches.

I still remember the halcyon days of the iPhone, where any video even mentioning the sacred device would go viral instantly, commanding millions of views. This would be June 2007, when it was just about to launch and, to paraphrase the mood back then, “change the way we did everything.” We as a community will probably never experience such a juggernaut of hype again — which is why this new backlash feels ever so slightly blasphemous.

The campaign theoretically celebrating the upcoming Droid let loose in October with an ad skewering the iPhone’s faults (mainly hardware issues like swappable batteries and the lack of a physical keyboard) while also mocking Apple’s minimalist style. It was so blatant an attack that BusinessWeek posited that Apple/Verizon talks regarding the iPhone had broken down — a theory Verizon CEO Ivan G. Seidenberg later refuted.

But AT&T and Verizon are most definitely not BFFs right now — the former has sued the latter over other Verizon ads attacking AT&T’s 3G coverage. Short version: AT&T is calling Verizon a liar, while Verizon encourages AT&T to read its footnotes a little better. AT&T is trying to have the ads pulled permanently, but so far, no success.

Verizon’s other holiday ad puts the snarky cherry on top of all this criticism. Recreating the Island of Misfit Toys from the classic stop-motion animated special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Spotted Elephant and the other discarded toys want to know why the iPhone has joined their ranks; the iPhone’s silent explanation is that same contentious picture of the AT&T 3G Network ad.

It’s the viral aspect of these ads that I find intriguing — Verizon seems to have stumbled upon a web-wide frustration that’s finally been given voice, and by providing the ads on a custom-designed YouTube account, that aggravation has translated into high view counts and cultural saturation. Combined with tech leaders like Blip.TV CEO Mike Hudack publicly breaking up with his iPhone and switching to a (free) Droid, a new form of Apple atheism is popping up. (It’s worth noting that our fearless leader Om Malik was ahead of the curve on this one.) The iPhone will always have its devotees, but the days of the jubilant iPhone musical are most decidedly done — which is for the best. After all, really, it’s just a phone.