FORBES KICKS OFF EARLIEST PRESIDENTIAL ADS EVER: SOME QUESTION WHETHER NATIONAL AUDIENCE IS PAYING ATTENTION YET

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Advertising for the 2000 presidential campaign will break nationally next month, the earliest formal kickoff ever.

Republican hopeful Steve Forbes last week took the unusual step of hiring William Eisner Associates, Hales Corners, Wis., as his national agency for the presidential run. His first ads are expected to launch on cable TV networks, including CNN, by mid-May.

Additional spot buys will be made in early primary states.

CELEBRATED CREATIVE

Mr. Eisner, whose shop handles retailers and some package-goods marketers, produced some celebrated creative for conservative Republican Mark Neumann's race for the U.S. Senate in Wisconsin last year.

That effort included tongue-in-cheek ads that showed a man in white lab coat examining cows and, in another, monkeys. The ads criticized Sen. Russ Feingold's support of government funding for various programs. Sen. Feingold, although spending far less, won re-election.

John McLaughlin & Associates, Nyack, N.Y., will handle media buying for Mr. Forbes.

In 1995, there were complaints that Democratic Party spots that ran in a number of markets were thinly veiled ads for President Clinton's re-election campaign, and that eventually resulted in a Justice Department probe. It was concluded without any action being taken.

HISTORY OF RAISING EYEBROWS

Four years ago, Mr. Forbes -- then virtually unknown outside of his role as editor in chief of Forbes -- also raised eyebrows when he began heavy advertising in September 1995, just after announcing his candidacy. His advertising included pushes for a flat tax and presidential term limits.

While most of the ads were aimed at Iowa, the Forbes campaign also bought time on CNN and several other cable networks.

Much better known this time, Mr. Forbes will launch his ads a full five months earlier than 1995.

POSSIBILITY RAISED EARLIER

There had been speculation earlier that presidential candidates would consider national ads next year, largely to increase ad efficiency in the primaries. The earlier date for the California primary, combined with similar moves in some other big states, practically force the campaigns to buy a far larger number of major media markets at once.

The key period will be from March through April.

In turning to national ads this early, Mr. Forbes is further leveraging his decision not to take federal matching funds for his campaign, a decision that could pressure some GOP rivals with lesser personal wealth to take a similar stance.

Candidates who take matching money agree to limit their spending in primary states.

In 1995, Bob Dole's attempt to answer Mr. Forbes' early advertising in Iowa caused problems later in staying under spending caps.

MOVE 'ANTICIPATED'

One rival camp last week suggested the Forbes ads were little surprise.

"We've always anticipated that Forbes would advertise early," said Greg Stevens, president of Stevens Reed Curcio & Co., the Alexandria, Va., agency for Arizona Sen. John McCain's presidential bid.

But, Mr. Stevens said, "I would question whether a national audience is paying attention yet."

The selection of Eisner to handle the Forbes campaign was the idea of Forbes 2000 Campaign Manager Bill Dal Col. He said what appealed to him about the agency was its successful use of simple themes in advertising for products and for political campaigns.

"I didn't want to go with a typical political ad guy who puts out cookie-cutter ads for different candidates," said Mr. Dal Col. "Steve Forbes is an outsider and has to break new ground. . . . we expect our TV ads to be as cutting edge."

Mr. Eisner, who has hired political strategy consultant R.J. Johnson, said he sees similarities between Messrs. Neumann and Forbes.

"They are both substantiative on a lot of issues and intelligent," he said,

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