SIMPSON MARKETS HIS CLAIM OF INNOCENCE

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Justice may be blind, but potential jurors aren't, and O.J. Simpson is deploying such tried and true marketing methods as 800-numbers and public relations to get out his message of innocence.

The football Hall of Famer is flexing the skills and instincts that made him a sports marketing legend as part of a campaign to prove that he didn't kill ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman, on June 12.

Never mind the media manipulation tactics used by both sides in taking their cases to millions of prospective jurors. Mr. Simpson moved the ball a few yards farther more than a week ago by setting up an 800-number that seeks to not only gather evidence for his defense but massage public sympathy.

Now comes word he's hunting for a PR agency to handle press inquiries and spin control.

The marketing community is intrigued, with practitioners imagining how they would handle such a campaign but concerned about the ethical and business aspects.

Still, the Simpson strategy surprises none of them.

"O.J. is really doing everything that he learned at USC, in the National Football League and in Hollywood about marketing himself. It's simply just an extension of how he's built his entire career," said Burt Flickinger III, marketing consultant at A.T. Kearney, New York, a consumer goods consultancy.

Many lauded the strategy as "brilliant," including Ben Goddard, chairman of Goddard*Claussen/First Tuesday, Malibu, Calif., the consultancy behind the "Harry & Louise" healthcare reform campaign of the Health Insurance Association of America.

"Clearly, there has been an effect on the public. The public perception has changed from O.J. as wife beater and guilty guy to a willingness to consider that he just may be innocent," said Mr. Goddard, citing such winning Simpson moves as his more upbeat attitude in court and his memorable, made-for-sound-bite plea of "Absolutely, 100% not guilty."

A seemingly less subtle tack has been to establish the toll-free phone number, which in its first week logged 250,000 calls-undoubtedly more curious calls than legitimate tips.

Telemarketing will help Mr. Simpson's cause, said Bob Nelson, chairman of the Nelson Communications Group, Irvine, a PR and ad agency that assisted Bill Clinton in his 1992 presidential bid.

"A toll-free hot line is an effective and respectable information-gathering tool," Mr. Nelson said. "At the same time, the process is a product itself ... The message that's being sent is `He must be innocent because he wouldn't do this if he was guilty."'

Experts say that hiring an ad or PR agency wouldn't be inappropriate, but doing so could prove difficult. At least one PR shop reportedly has already turned Mr. Simpson down, and executives at many ad agencies say they wouldn't create an ad effort for Mr. Simpson.

"All a campaign would do is try to enhance his appeal, but I don't think any advertising could change people's mind about evidence that might exist against him. I don't think people can be manipulated this way," said Phil Dusenberry, CEO, BBDO Worldwide, New York.

Mr. Dusenberry's West Coast counterpart, Steve Hayden, chairman of BBDO in Los Angeles, said he too wouldn't take the account because the price on other clients would be too high. Mr. Hayden said that during a recent casting session for an Apple Computer spot, the client said about the chosen talent: "I hope this person doesn't turn out to be another O.J. Simpson."

Donny Deutsch, CEO of Deutsch, New York, said he'd take on Mr. Simpson only if he could be convinced of his innocence. He facetiously imagined a spot with Mr. Simpson's sportscaster colleagues Bob Costas and Al Michaels offering their endorsements of their friend's character.

Such an effort, Mr. Deutsch said, "would be one of the most absurd things of all time, but I don't think it's beyond the media hype this thing has generated from the beginning."

Melanie Wells contributed to this story.

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