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Hard to believe that a scant 10 years ago IBM Corp. was such a monolithic force that competing Apple Computer was portraying Big Blue as a digital despot, a tyrannical, mind-controlling force of evil.

Well, a decade after the ominous "1984," the alleged Orwellian tyrant is a distant fourth in personal computer sales, and being fronted on network TV by the smart-alecky New York comic Paul Reiser.

With Ogilvy & Mather New York's $100 million media buy, his will be an omnipresent telescreen image, all right. But ... Big Brother? No, more like My Cousin Vinny.

"Wow! Look at the size of this place!" says Reiser's face-and nothing but his face-from an IBM color monitor on the shelves of a gigantic computer superstore. "A guy who didn't know what he was doing could sure get himself in a lot of trouble here."

He is speaking to a dazed shopper, who is clearly bewildered by the dizzying array of hardware before him. Meantime, an on-screen super, quoting PC World, tells us that "Nearly one in four users surveyed report problems with their new computers."

"But, hey" Reiser's virtual head continues, thick with irony, "I'm sure you'll pick one out. I mean, how hard could it be? Like these guys. [He gestures with his eyebrows to the computer on the shelf above him, presumably made by Packard Bell.] They used to make a heck of a movie projector.

"And anyway, if something does go wrong, I'm sure a handy guy like you can probably just fix it yourself. [Super No. 2: `IBM rated in best category for reliability and service.'] But as long as you're here, maybe you oughta just look at an IBM."

Then, popping up a word at a time in sync with the music, the new tagline: "There is a difference."

Yes, there certainly is a difference-in the demeanor of one of the more formidable industrial corporations of the world, following an account consolidation, at O&M, of seismic proportions.

A second spot has the Reiser icon popping up in an office, after hours, where a young woman has encountered a system error and is waiting futilely for her computer manufacturer to answer the phone.

"Maybe your mistake is," he says, "you're holding for the wrong company."

Because IBM, in contrast to the woeful industry average, answers the phone 99% of the time.

So, there you have it. If you don't buy IBM, you may blunder into the wrong hardware. If you don't buy IBM, you may not get service after the sale. The campaign's third installment is due out next week, perhaps along the lines of, if you don't buy IBM, you will be covered with large, painful boils.

Marketing by fear, this is called, and it's as old as man, employed for everything from The Club to dental floss to God. Maybe IBM will prosper with it too, by demonstrating its good name adds value to commodity hardware.

But in the long run, doesn't fear-mongering also represent a risk to the IBM name? Would it not be more becoming to make a positive statement of value? Should $100 million and the company's personal computing fortunes worldwide rest on a kibitzing comedian who floats on-screen like a disembodied refugee from the Twilight Zone?

Big Brother may be watching. The question is, among those watching Big Brother, will anyone care what he has to say?

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