ADS ALERT FRENCH TO PHONE SWITCH THREE-YEAR, $25 MIL PUSH HELPED PAVE THE WAY FOR 2 NEW DIGITS

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[paris] As cellular phones, faxes, modems and other telecommunications tools grow in popularity, phone companies around the world face the same problem: how to satisfy the huge demand for new lines with a limited pool of potential numbers.

The solution-especially with the explosion of business expected when Europe's telecommunications industry fully deregulates in 1998-is to keep adding new digits. That's what France Telecom will do Oct. 18, after a $25 million ad campaign to explain the change to the French public.

The extra two numbers will increase France's potential store of numbers 10 times over.

32 MIL NUMBERS CHANGE

Just after 11 p.m., all 32 million phone numbers in France will require a new two-digit prefix to work-the first digit being a zero for all numbers and the second corresponding to one of five new geographical areas the monopoly has divided the nation into.

The elongation of phone numbers is the second France Telecom has undertaken since 1985, when it became the world's first telco to tackle limited numerical combinations by adding digits to phone numbers.

But next week's two-digit expansion is being viewed as perhaps the most ambitious yet undertaken in the world.

NO TO `SOFT APPROACH'

"Many nations that have added digits to domestic numbers preferred using the soft approach, where the two systems overlap and work concurrently for a time," said Jacques Hintzy, co-president of Hintzy Heymann & Associes, the agency to handling the switch campaign. "France Telecom prefers the more rigid option of a single, sudden change. But for that to work, people must be well-informed so that the change, when it comes, is neither sinister nor confusing."

France Telecom selected Hintzy to start its groundwork back in 1993, when it began direct marketing and trade-press advertising to alert peripheral businesses like datebook manufacturers and others to the coming change. The following year it sent the message to large businesses and industries.

In the four-week countdown for the Oct. 18 switch, Hintzy has broken TV commercials adapted to each of the five regions, telling them how the change will affect their own numbers, and how to dial other areas and international numbers.

EXPLAINING THE SWITCH

In all, 10 spots explain the switch and its timing, using clownlike people each carrying a single digit on a placard. Print and radio ads support.

Despite the three years of work preceding this final barrage of information, nearly half of the $25 million budget was invested in the final four weeks.

"We are already getting tests back indicating the message is getting through at higher levels [of awareness] than you'd normally see," said Mr. Hintzy, who thinks that may be partially due to the campaign's use of humor in getting the main points across painlessly.

"The public does not like to change its habits, so when you ask it to do just that, you have to do it with a smile."

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