H&R BLOCK ADS RETURN WITHOUT THE FOUNDER

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H&R Block has written off its chairman from his longtime role as ad spokesman.

As the tax season starts in earnest, H&R Block founder Henry Bloch and John Hewitt, president-ceo of upstart competitor Jackson Hewitt Tax Service, are both absent from their respective TV campaigns.

Mr. Bloch is seemingly unfazed by his departure from the limelight.

"There was no reason they needed to use me every year," he said. "I was glad to do it, [but] I don't know that I was any good."

(Mr. Bloch, who started the nation's largest tax preparation chain in 1955, replaced John Cameron Swayze as endorser more than 20 years ago, at the suggestion of BBDO Worldwide.)

H&R Block decided to shift gears after focus groups revealed a new approach would make the company seem more contemporary. Block prepared 15.6 million tax returns last year, a 0.1% decline and its first drop in many years.

The company begins its first post-Bloch campaign Jan. 10, using network TV and out-of-home media more heavily than before to promote 8,000 owned and franchised tax centers in the U.S.

One of three 30-second spots in the estimated $11 million effort from Bernstein-Rein, Kansas City, Mo., uses historical footage and photographs to emphasize the company's long heritage and trustworthiness.

"The times and tax laws have changed, but one thing hasn't," an announcer says. "You can still trust H&R Block."

Also, H&R Block this month is rolling out a co-branded MasterCard, tested in a few markets last season. Applications will be available at company-owned tax centers.

"We felt basically that we could do some different things that would have more appeal to potential customers," said Harry Buckley, president of H&R Block's Tax Service unit. The perception is that "nothing ever changes as long as you see Henry" in advertising, Mr. Buckley said.

Both Block and Jackson Hewitt, which processed 410,000 returns in 1993, are also aggressively promoting their respective Rapid Refund and Superfast Refund programs to cater to core lower- and middle-class markets. Both typically offer fast refunds, sometimes within 24 hours of filing, that are paid in the form of loans against the IRS checks that come six weeks or more later. The services earn additional income from interest and fee charges.

Jackson Hewitt's $3.5 million campaign, including three 30-second TV spots, radio commercials and direct mail, runs from Jan. 17 to Feb. 15, a period that accounts for half its annual business.

Eighty percent of the budget will be spent on spot TV, with three commercials by Grey Matter, Chesapeake, Va., portraying busy taxpayers with "refund anticipation loan" checks in hand. Last season, Mr. Hewitt provided his own testimonials for the service. But this time around the company wanted to develop characters to whom taxpayers could more easily relate.

Newspaper ads were created by Creative Alliance, Louisville, Ky., themed, "We ask the right questions so you get the right refund."

Soundshop Productions, Nashville, Tenn., created the radio campaign. Media buying is handled in-house.

Electronic filing of tax returns, available in selected regions, is also a major growth opportunity because taxpayers must use a paid preparer to obtain the service. Jackson Hewitt has pinned its growth plans to electronic filing; the company promises 900 retail outlets will be open in 35 states by Jan. 8, compared with 615 last April.

"More and more people are learning about electronic filing," said Martha O'Gorman, director of communications at Jackson Hewitt. "It's the crux and the catalyst for our whole business."M

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12.8Henry Bloch has appeared in his company's ads for many years, but he won't be in the 1994 campaign.

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