BIG BRANDS HIT INFOMERCIAL CIRCUIT

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Coming to TV this fall: Forget about "Home Improvement," buy a home from Prudential instead.

September is expected to mark the debut of several new infomercial campaigns from major marketers. Among brand names soon to grace late-night airwaves are IBM, Nissan, Prudential and Pantene, while Toys "R" Us and Bank of America reprise earlier efforts.

"The corporate market is as hot as I've ever seen it," said Tim Hawthorne, chairman of Hawthorne Communications, a Fairfield, Iowa-based infomercial agency now involved in five such projects.

Their plans come amid an already tightening media marketplace, and as cable system operators, cable networks and local broadcasters scramble for their own piece of the lucrative infomercial media pie. A proposed tightening of Federal Communications Commission limits on commercial time would also send pricing of available inventory skyward.

As usual, most eyes are focused on Procter & Gamble Co., which has tiptoed into the infomercial game with a new show now airing in two markets for Fixodent denture adhesive and another about to break for Pantene Pro-V shampoo.

Industry executives say they expect other marketers to follow P&G's early foray, often using similar, micromarketing strategies. For example, the Fixodent show, which stars a cast member from the P&G-owned soap opera "As the World Turns," is running only in the Columbus, Ohio, and Springfield, Mass./Hartford, Conn. markets, where a company spokesman said residents are 11% more likely to wear dentures. The Fixodent infomercial was created by Feldman & Associates, New York, a unit of D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, while Grey Advertising divisions Great! Productions and Media Connections were responsible for Pantene.

Similarly, Fidelity Investments on July 30 expanded its retirement planning show to national cable networks, only after careful testing in Salt Lake City; Jacksonville, Fla.; and two other markets with large groups of seniors. Hudson Street Partners, New York, created the infomercial.

Of course, traditional infomercial products-your typical Topsy Tails, Komputer Tutors and MicroCrisps-also test shows. But mostly, they're trying out different price points or offer combinations, using separate toll-free numbers to measure responses in each market.

Now, major marketers often have more strategic objectives in mind, and executives say that's fueling interest in infomercials over more costly (though broader reaching) buys like prime-time TV.

"Companies are looking at infomercials as sort of events," said Tim O'Leary, president of TV Tyee, Portland, Ore. "They plan to run them a month or two for new-product introductions and brand repositioning," often to generate inquiries for building consumer databases and driving retail sales.

Mars Inc. in June began airing an infomercial from TV Tyee and Williams Television Time, Santa Monica, Calif., in three Western markets to introduce its premium Waltham Diet pet food line. Marketing was previously limited to ads aimed at vets and readers of pet enthusiast magazines.

Volkswagen of America is running a nostalgia-filled program from free-lancer John Slaven, meant to recapture the magic of that troubled brand, using archival footage of the venerable (but extinct) Beetle.

Sanyo Fisher USA plans an October rollout of a show promoting its slow-selling 24-disc programmable CD changer, after rival Philips Electronics paved the way last fall with a successful campaign for its CD-Interactive player.

And Clorox Co. is said to be planning a short-form infomercial campaign, perhaps 10 minutes, to demonstrate roach-proofing techniques by promoting its Combat insecticide.

Gary Levin coordinates Direct Marketing.

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