The return of the CEO pitchman

It is entirely possible I have watched too many episodes of "Mad Men," and now foolishly fancy myself an advertising expert, but I wonder, can a CEO pitchman really save a struggling company? Sprint may find out as it rolls out a second TV commercial featuring CEO Dan Hesse.

The mostly black-and-white TV commercials look and sound pretty cool. The first one features Hesse walking down a city street (he's not in Kansas anymore) talking in a relaxed, personal and conversational tone about Sprint's unlimited voice plan. In the second round, he urges customers to head over to their neighborhood Sprint retail stores.

Lee Iacocca he is not, and that may be a good thing. Iacocca's original Chrysler commercials commercials came at a time when a lot of regular people in the U.S. probably still looked up to corporate CEOs and respected their opinions. Now, despite Hesse's integrity and fairly sound record as CEO (his mulligan being Terabeam), the antics of other corporate leaders probably have diminished the average CEO's ability to win over the American public.

If the Hesse ads prove to be a turning point for Sprint, how long will it take before we see other telecom CEOs do the same? Maybe Qwest CEO Edward Mueller could be seen touting his company from a kitchen where he shows off some nifty knife skills he learned as as the former chief of Williams-Sonoma. And even less troubled carriers may take note. Perhaps Randall Stephenson could be seen pitching the benefits of AT&T's U-verse from a Midwestern living room, or Ivan Seidenberg using his Verizon Wireless phone in the shadow of the new Yankee Stadium.

In the age of time-shifted TV, Hesse's commercials may not be enough on their own to shift Sprint's fortunes, but I have to admit that Hesse actually comes off pretty well in his ads. Maybe he should have taken to the airwaves to save Terabeam.