TRANSACTINS;CAMPAIGN CLOUT;WHOOPI'S MCI ROLE POSES RISK OF LOOK-ALIKE ADS IN LONG-DISTANCE

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Having women front for long-distance carriers is almost as creative as using athletes to hawk running shoes. Women make most of the domestic long-distance calls and, therefore, weigh in loudest about a phone company choice.

The latest addition, Whoopi Goldberg for MCI Communications Corp., risks both a celebrity overload and the danger of look-alike advertising in the category.

Ms. Goldberg is the best recognized of the phone company presenters. Her awareness as a phone company presenter has, however, a long way to go-even after six years only one person recognizes Candice Bergen as a spokeswoman for Sprint compared with four who think of her as an actress.

But more critical for MCI is whether Whoopi can be correctly identified with the brand in this category. Even Ms. Bergen is associated with MCI/AT&T instead of Sprint by almost one out of three viewers who are aware of her phone company association. At the outset, Ms. Goldberg is associated as much with AT&T as with MCI. Of course, this misidentification will lessen over time.

The challenge for MCI and agency Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmet-terer/Euro RSCG, New York, is to position Ms. Goldberg quickly and creatively as a part of the brand. But it will require a long-term commitment to modify her perception from actress to MCI spokeswoman. And MCI's record for long-term commitment to campaigns is rather weak.

The three rivals lost their product differentiation a long time ago. Now, they have even lost their advertising differentiation. The problem with look-alike advertising is that it locks in brand shares.

Mr. Vadehra is president of Video Storyboard Tests, and he welcomes feedback. Fax him at (212) 689-0210. Campaign Clout reports on viewer response to current advertising.

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