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TORONTO-Canada's long-distance telephone carriers have drawn their battle lines in a new ad war over the country's $3 billion-a-year residential market.

With stakes so high, starting this month an estimated $200 million-plus will be spent on marketing by heavyweights like Sprint Canada, Unitel, and Bell Canada.

"I think you would be safe to say that this year over $100 million will be spent on advertising-and that does not include direct mail and telemarketing and that's probably as much again," said Heather MacPherson, director of advertising at Unitel.

The call to arms sounded July 1, the date the Canadian Radio-television & Telecommunications Commission set two years ago for the start of "equal access" by alternative long-distance companies to the networks of established giants like Bell Canada.

While long-distance services previously were permitted to tap into established phone networks, users had to dial as many as 17 extra digits to make a call. Now, under equal acccess, whether the carrier is matriarch Ma Bell, myth-busting Unitel, Americanized Sprint Canada or any of 200 others dialing for dollars, most Canadians who get that long-distance feeling need press only the standard 11 digits to make their connection.

Because of the difficulty of using alternative carriers before, Unitel and Sprint combined had only an 8% share of the long-distance market as of July. That will change. The investment analysis company Scotia McLeod is predicting equal access will increase share of the top two alternative carriers-formally Unitel Communications and Call-Net Enterprises, the parent of Sprint Canada-to 30% combined by 1999.

Ms. MacPherson wouldn't disclose Unitel's budget for the campaign, but said most of it will be concentrated in TV, "where we probably spend about 80% of our dollars." The company also is using outdoor advertising and direct mail.

A Unitel TV commercial that started airing this month, from Ogilvy & Mather Canada, Toronto, is a humorous two-minute attempt to dispel myths about Canada-such as one that all Mounties look like Nelson Eddy-while correcting the myth that access to alternative long-distance phone service is a pain.

Sprint Canada, Call-Net's operating nom de plume since the U.S. company bought 25% of Call-Net, is counting on Sprint's stateside advertising look-namely "Murphy Brown" star Candice Bergen-to get its access and discount messages across.

Ms. Bergen, already well-known to many Canadian viewers, is appearing in English-and French-language versions of the advertising produced by Grey Advertising, Toronto. The campaign starts this month.

The challenge, said Dave Hagan, VP of Sprint Canada's consumer services group, is "is to make sure that Canadian customers know it's not another U.S. ad."

The company wouldn't discuss details of the effort, but in the U.S., Sprint has Ms. Bergen tweaking the competititon while talking about Sprint's service and savings. Bell Canada, meanwhile, is gearing up to introduce what it calls "the biggest new product news in the history of Bell Canada." And the company promises to spend accordingly on advertising.

The new residential calling service, Real Plus, will offer long-distance savings, frequent-calling discounts and free air miles.

Ad creative isn't yet decided and Bell won't specify what it's spending on the TV, direct mail, telemarketing and print effort for Real Plus, breaking in late summer from Leo Burnett Co., Toronto.

Bell spent nearly $42 million on media advertising last year, according to Nielsen, Marketing Research, not including direct marketing. It's expected that figure will double in 1994.

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