Later this week, Tri-Cities residents will see a newspaper advertisement showing a man with bugged-out eyes peeking out from behind a cubicle and the tagline, "Guess What's Back Again?"
The answer that SBC Communications offers in the ad: the Nov. 2 municipal broadband referendum asking whether Tri-Cities governments should bring fiber optic lines to every home.
But there's another answer, too: The advertising blitz residents remember from the lead-up to the defeated April 1, 2003, question.
At the time, residents and officials took issue with an SBC phone poll that asked questions implying that the $62 million initiative might cause the cities to cut teaching staffs, would lead to the government's listening in on telephone calls, and would use tax money to provide pornographic movies.
Print ads and direct mail pieces from SBC and Comcast implied that the plan amounted to a long-shot bet that would cost each household more than $2,000 - a figure that might apply if the system were fully developed yet made no revenues and then wasn't liquidated.
"What upset me most was that neither of the incumbents ever touted their own professional skills or resources, but simply condemned the lack of resources on our part," Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns said. "Don't tell me why I should vote against the other guy; tell me why I should vote for you."
In this upcoming campaign, it appears Comcast and SBC will be doing some of both. While the companies said this week they stand behind their past campaigns, they will be approaching the referendum in a different way this time around.
Leigh Ann Hughes, vice president of Comcast's Chicago west area, said, "What we've really tried to do for the past few months is tell our story."
Comcast has been concentrating on telling people about the wide range of services and products it offers, as well as its ties to the community and the "corporate culture" of involvement.
"It's probably very easy for the other side to characterize us as a big, bad cable company," Hughes said.
As the referendum approaches, the company will be reminding voters through an "informational campaign" that they defeated the proposal by a wide margin in 2003, Hughes said. Since then, she said, competition, products and services in the area have increased.
SBC plans to take a similar tack in questioning the need and viability of municipal broadband.
"What we're trying to do is educate Tri-Cities voters with the facts and make it clear that there are still a lot of unanswered questions and that this plan still puts taxpayer dollars at risk," SBC spokesman Steve Kauffman said.
While SBC has said it does not plan on any more phone polls, Comcast did not rule them out.
Annie Collins, organizer of Fiber For Our Future, said the group will be waging a campaign with its Web site, fliers and about 1,000 yard signs. The entire effort will be funded by less than $3,000 in donations from around the country.
SBC said it spent less than one-tenth of the $1 million some speculated it poured into the last campaign. Comcast declined to discuss its marketing budget.
SBC will soon be filing papers with the state of Illinois on its spending so far during this campaign, Kauffman said, in response to a new state law.
Collins received SBC's first direct mail piece in her mailbox Wednesday. It asks where the business plan for financing the project is, what private investor would invest in a break-even proposal, and who pays for the system if it's not profitable.
"Can ANYONE guarantee that Tri-Cities residents and taxpayers will not be on the hook to fund this project at a later date through increased fees or higher taxes?" asked the mailer that is going out this week.
Those questions, Collins said, are non-sequiturs. If voters indicate they want to go ahead with the plan by voting in favor of a binding question in Geneva and advisory questions in St. Charles and Batavia, an agency the cities will create must come up with a business plan. If private investors see the value in the business plan, they'll invest, Collins said, and if it fails, "the private investors repossess the system and they take the hit, not the taxpayers of the Tri-Cities."
Last time around, Burns said, the negative ads "boomeranged. It really gave them a black eye, that companies purporting to support the community would resort to those tactics."
Since then, the companies and officials have sat down and reached the understanding that will, Burns said, hopefully guide this campaign.
"We respect their desire to protect their territory and their market share," Burns said. "They respect our desire to do what's in the best interests of our residents."
Broadband: SBC mailing arrived at homes this week