Post office axes ads rapping its rivals

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The U.S. Postal Service is halting its highly successful but controversial campaign presenting an unflattering cost comparison among its Priority Mail service and rivals Federal Express Corp. and United Parcel Service of America.

The brand name price comparisons, crafted by Foote, Cone & Belding, New York, will cease next month after a nearly four-year run that saw Priority Mail volume climb substantially.

"Starting in January, we agreed not to name names [in the advertising]," David Shinnebarger, manager-marketing and strategy for the postal service's expedited/package services group, told a Lisle, Ill., Great Lakes area marketing conference of postal workers. "We can't compare price points and we can't name names."

He cited negotiations to end a lawsuit filed by FedEx as the reason for the change.

UNFAIRNESS CHARGED

FedEx has charged that the ads, which compare its pricing for a two-day guaranteed package delivery with pricing of a postal service package that could be delivered in three days, is unfair. It took its case to the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus and, when that didn't work, filed suit against the postal service. FedEx also ran radio ads created by BBDO Worldwide, New York, making fun of the postal service campaign.

UPS has also been vocal in its criticism of the campaign.

Settlement of the FedEx lawsuit may be imminent, though executives of both the postal service and FedEx said last week no accord had been reached.

Though repeatedly mentioning a settlement and plans to drop price comparisons at the marketing conference, Mr. Shinnebarger late last week denied a final decision had been made.

The success of the Priority Mail program was helped along when former postal marketing chief Loren Smith switched more than $80 million from other marketing functions to Priority Mail advertising in 1995 and 1996. The switch, done without permission of the Postal Service Board of Governors, eventually led to Mr. Smith's 1996 departure and a sharp cutback in spending on the comparison campaign.

Last year, only about $39 million was spent on the effort, down from $92 million in 1996.

'WHAT'S YOUR PRIORITY'

The new ads slated for January will continue the "What's your priority" theme, Mr. Shinnebarger said. The postal service may also be looking for new creative in advance of the March 13 national rollout of a delivery confirmation service that will make Priority Mail packages trackable like the packages of rivals.

The current execution of the postal service's comparison campaign features a Saturday delivery of overnight letters to a snowman. He melts when the deliveryman, in a UPS driver's uniform says, "Sorry."

At the conference, Mr. Shinnebarger described that spot, titled "Merry Saturday," as the last blast of comparison ads.

"If you're going out, you might as well go out big," he said.

Contributing: Alan Salomon in Memphis, Tenn.

Copyright December 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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