CONAGRA BUCKS TREND AS FROZEN-FOOD ADS COOL OFF: ADVERTISING IN CATEGORY STALLS AT HEINZ, CAMPBELL

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ConAgra Frozen Foods is leading off a new season of advertising for frozen dinners and entrees, but outlays in the category promise to be tepid.

The bulk of ConAgra's estimated $25 million in spending will support the first-ever TV advertising for its Marie Callender's line and a campaign breaking today for its Healthy Choice dinners and entrees.

The company also is restaging and renaming its Banquet Extra Helping and Family Entrees.

The push comes as competitor Nestle introduces a new subline of Lean Cuisine called American Favorites, with an estimated $5 million TV effort from Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York.

SPENDING DROPS

Advertising activity appears to be slow at H.J. Heinz Co.'s Weight Watchers, where the ad focus is on the company's 1,2,3 Success diet program rather than frozen meals. And it's downright stalled at Campbell Soup Co., where the company's announcement that it would spin off Swanson, Vlasic and other brands cast serious doubt on Campbell's commitment to retailers to spend $10 million on Swanson advertising this year.

"Spending [in the category] has continued to go down," said Jim Smith, president of ConAgra Frozen Foods. "I think that's disappointing given that we're in a category that continues to be underdeveloped."

For Marie Callender's, ConAgra has come up with 12 new items that are rolling into about 28% of the country, said Mr. Smith. TV support from Grey Advertising, New York, breaks within a month, using the tagline "Unbelievably good frozen food." Print uses a fairy-tale theme and carries the copyline "The best frozen food in the history of everything."

The campaign for Healthy Choice dinners and entrees that starts today will have new executions but continue last year's theme from Campbell Mithun Esty, Minneapolis, giving consumers the "green light" to eat Healthy Choice.

DISNEY TIE-IN

Kid Cuisine, meanwhile, is promoting a $5 rebate toward the purchase of Walt Disney Co.'s "Jungle Book" home video, being released Sept. 30, and will run a free-standing insert Feb. 8 offering kids "free fun stuff" such as a basketball and activity book by collecting Universal Product Codes.

ConAgra also will restage its Banquet Extra Helping with the name Banquet Hearty One. Chasing the home meal replacement movement, the company has redubbed the multiserve Banquet Family Entrees to Banquet Meals Made Easy!

The product previously consisted of only part of a main family meal-like six salisbury steaks-but has been switched to more substantial lines such as Pasta & Italian Sausage and Creamy Broccoli Chicken & Cheese Over Rice. Grey also handles.

FROM LEAN CUISINE

Lean Cuisine's American Favorites follows the introduction of Cafe Classics last year and is described in print ads as "old favorites done in a whole new way."

The launch comes even though sales for Lean Cuisine Cafe Classics are sliding. According to Information Resources Inc., sales fell 4.8% for the 52 weeks ended Aug. 17, to $126.8 million.

STOUFFER STAYS 'CLOSER'

For Stouffer, Nestle will continue its "Nothing comes closer to home" advertising via Messner Vetere this year, the spokeswoman said.

Stouffer was supported with $8.4 million last year, the second-heaviest supported brand name in the $3.7 billion frozen dinner/entree category after the $19.7 million spent on Healthy Choice.

A big decliner in the category was Weight Watchers base brand entrees, which received only $250,000 in measured ad spending last year. Weight Watchers was down 16.7% to $67.6 million in sales.

Those results have inclined Heinz to focus attention on Smart Ones From Weight Watchers, a subline that was up 13.5% to $72.4 million for the 52 weeks ended Aug. 17, IRI said.

Swanson, a $345 million brand, expected to go without advertising this season

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