TOP 200 BRANDS A RED-LETTER YEAR: PHENOMENAL 13.8% IN '96 SETS NEW BENCHMARK

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Revved-up auto advertising, heavy spending for drugs going from prescription to over-the-counter sales and solid ad backing by fast-food outlets drove up ad spending 13.8% in 1996 for the nation's Top 200 megabrands.

This was the best annual performance in the eight years of the regular Advertising Age report.

The Top 200 spent $25.1 billion in media to claim 38% of all media advertising for the year, according to the report prepared quarterly from 11 media summaries supplied by Competitive Media Reporting.

Previous best year-end performance was 10.7% in 1990 when the Top 200 spent $15.6 billion. AT&T Corp. led megabrands in both years: $654.1 million in '96 and $502.3 million in '90.

CARS SOAR

Auto spending came alive in second-half '96 to advance 9.7% for the year after an inauspicious start in the first quarter when the 32-member category declined 1.5%.

Autos primed the ad pump in fourth quarter with 16.2% growth over spending in the same period '95. Unit sales, down only 1.2% in '96 industrywide, made room for selective growth.

Chrysler Corp. boosted outlays 10.6% for Dodge cars and trucks to $468.1 million. Market share rose to 8.5%, up 0.9 points-biggest share increase among U.S. car and truck sales, according to Automotive News.

Chrysler plowed $182.1 million into Plymouth cars and trucks, up 147.4%; market share responded by advancing 0.2 points to 2.1%.

Volkswagen/Audi backed its cars and trucks with $85.2 million, up 21.3%, as share grew 0.2 points to 1.1%.

The 26-member personal care, drugs and cosmetics category registered 29.1% growth in advertising, most dramatic among the 200's $2 billion-level categories, with growth largely attributed to its 13-brand drug subsegment, up 44.9% to $1.1 billion.

NETWORK TV IN CONTROL

Network TV was the category's medium of choice at $1.2 billion, up 43%, the big fusion of new dollars from brands that turned OTC in '96, including nicotine-cessation patches and other nicotine providers. Johnson & Johnson's Nicotrol patch drew $53.4 million. SmithKline Beech-am's Nicorette gum got a $60 million surge in spending.

Marlboro advertising, meanwhile, retreated to $111.7 million, down 14.1%. Marlboro remains the only cigarette in the 200; in '90 it had the company of Newport, Virginia Slims and Merit.

The 13-member restaurant category was paced by McDonald's, its spending rising 22.1%, and Burger King, up a phenomenal 43.7%. The push at BK was in network TV, up 87.5%. Both fast-food giants ended up devoting two-thirds of their total media to network TV.

Network grew 25% to $9.3 billion for the 200, equal to 63% of all network TV advertising. The Olympics and the presidential election spurred the medium, although the latter added even greater ad stimulus to spot and local TV.

Newspapers, up the full year, faded in the fourth quarter. Preprints (half of the nation's retail ad spending) got squeezed by higher paper costs. The critical Christmas window also was shorter than '95.

Hollywood could present a darkening cloud on the horizon. Entertainment growth cooled to 7.3%.

FILMS UP BUT DOLLARS TIGHTEN

Releases were up, but the promotion dollar has tightened. Eight movies released by the Top 200's 13 studios drew media spending of $20 million-plus and 44 others received $10 million to $19.9 million. In '95 there were 14 movies that drew spending of $20 million-plus.

Promotion and production costs have been escalating faster than box-office sales. Average gross take of a wide-screen release in '96 was $32 million, down $1 million from the prior year because of shorter runs caused by more releases

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