ONLINE SERVICES SET MARKETING BLAST;PRODIGY, COMPUSERVE KICK OFF INDUSTRY'S BIGGEST EVER AD PUSH

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Microsoft Corp. may have whistled the Stones' "Start Me Up" to launch Windows 95 and Microsoft Network, but online competitors are gearing up for a full blast of "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

Prodigy this week launches an estimated $25 million TV advertising campaign via Cliff Freeman & Partners, New York, targeting non-online subscribers. Low-voiced crooner Barry White appears in one spot as a "bus driver" on the information highway who makes stops at entertaining music locations.

CompuServe, meanwhile, jabbed at Microsoft with a print ad that ran last week in major newspapers including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Beneath an image of a highway repair sign were the words: "So, this is the Microsoft information superhighway?," a reference to the many unfinished areas of the newly launched Microsoft Network.

Other CompuServe ads will appear in November issues of computer titles including PC World and Macworld, and a TV push is expected to begin next month via new agency Martin/Williams, Minneapolis.

All told, CompuServe will spend $35 million on advertising in its current fiscal year, triple its usual budget.

America Online, perhaps the biggest MSN detractor, last week saw first cuts of a major branding campaign from new agency Chiat/Day, New York, said Ted Leonsis, president of AOL Services Co.

In addition, the new online service from News Corp./MCI Online Ventures will also soon launch a major campaign, believed to be from MCI agency Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG.

The online industry has never seen this much advertising activity. While Prodigy has conducted big-bucks campaigns in the past-including the less-than successful "Live on Prodigy" effort of a few years back-AOL and CompuServe have concentrated their spending on direct marketing.

But while Microsoft is an easy target, there's much more at stake in the online industry.

"That was an opportunistic message," said Mike Gray, senior VP-management supervisor at Martin/Williams, of CompuServe's print ad. "It doesn't reflect our ongoing position or attitude."

Where a year ago there was a clear leader in the commercial online market-Prodigy-now the Big 3 are neck-and-neck. And Web-based services like MCI/Delphi, negligible challengers even a few months ago, now have a chance to make a major play for subscribers.

"We are working on an image shift at Prodigy, and the campaign reflects that," a Prodigy spokeswoman said.

In at least one case, however, online ad competition is spilling over into the media.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer rejected CompuServe's MSN-critical ad last week, saying it was company policy not to accept paid ads for commercial online services. CompuServe thought otherwise, accusing the paper of playing favorites with hometown Microsoft Corp. and MSN, for which the paper may be a content provider.

"CompuServe has misrepresented the situation," said Marji Ruiz, VP-advertising at Seattle Times Co., which represents the Post-Intelligencer and sister paper The Seattle Times. "It has nothing to do with Microsoft Network."

Amid all the online marketing fray one player is conspicuously absent: Microsoft.

Current Windows 95 advertising makes passing reference to the online service, and Microsoft spokespeople said there's no immediate plan to start a separate campaign for MSN.

Laurie Freeman and Bradley Johnson contributed to this story.

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