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One of the latest trends in out-of-home advertising is full of hot air.

Used to be, most consumers might see one blimp in a good year-and even then it was usually on TV during a major event like the Super Bowl.

That has changed dramatically as a growing clique of marketers seeks to inflate their brand images by painting an airship and taking to the sky. Brands represented include Blockbuster, Budweiser, Fuji, Gulf Oil and Met Life.

One reason is cost.

"I can probably fly the the blimp for 30 days for what it would cost to do a super prime-time 60-second spot," says Carol Smith, director of the airship's operations for Fuji Photo Film USA. At televised events, "When you put cameras on board, the [broadcaster] will give us a minimum of a 10-second pop and audio voiceover. You are getting incredible exposure."

The Fuji blimp was launched in 1984, in conjunction with the film marketer's sponsorship of the Olympic Games held that year in Los Angeles. Since then it has been criss-crossing the U.S., appearing at football, baseball, golf and tennis events, plus the Kentucky Derby and Indy 500.

Its most recent tour was built around the World Cup soccer matches.

Bob Pizzute, director of sports programming and blimp promotions for Metropolitan Life, agrees on the relative economy of the medium. Met Life presently flies two blimps-Snoopy I and Snoopy II.

"We are in our seventh year with airships [and] we feel that the value we get from them far exceeds the money we pay for them," he says.

However, while airship operators brag about their cost-effectiveness, getting an aerial ad campaign up and running isn't cheap.

George Spyrou, president of Airship Management Services, opertor of the Fuji blimp, says a full-size, touring airship will run a marketer about $350,000 per month.

That figure, says Mr. Spyrou, includes everything-customized painting, crew salaries and expenses.

As part of the deal, Airship Management also will "sit down with a client and chart out a plan that will follow the sun," adds Mr. Spyrou.

If that's too expensive, Bruce Renny says he can provide a smaller blimp for half-price: "$160,000-$180,000 a month."

The difference, claims the marketing director for Virgin Lightships, "is like a tractor to a Ferrari. They both have four wheels and an engine but they have vastly different capabilities. The larger airships are the dinosaurs facing the Ice Age lightship."

Virgin Lightships has a fleet of four on commercial charter. Clients include cable TV's Family Channel, Blockbuster Video and mobile communications companies in the U.K. and South Africa, says Mr. Renny, who hopes to have two more lightships flying by the end of next year.

"What our clients want is a united marketing vehicle -not just a name in the sky,"' says Mr. Renny.

As well as aerial filming of events, blimps can be used as V.I.P. entertainment and to drive sales directly via bannered 800-numbers, he says.

Regardless of the type of airship a marketer might choose, companies who have gone the blimp route seem pleased with the kind of exposure it has generated.

"We feel that our programming is unique in the marketplace and we wanted a unique vehicle" to promote it, says Beth Swanson, national director for Family Channel Airship Tour. Blimps "have a certain mystique. .*.*. It is a vehicle that instantly arouses curiosity" among the public.

The channel's tour, themed "Accentuate the positive," is also used "as a marketing tool for our regional VPs," says Ms. Swanson. Additionally, each month "we dedicate one day to giving rides to terminally ill kids."

"People love blimps," says Mr. Spyrou. "It is just a very upbeat, positive feeling they get" when they see them.

He remembers that when he was running a blimp for Pepsi-Cola Co.'s launch of Slice soft drink in 1986, one marketing executive said, "You know, I like it righthere" and then pointed to his gut.

If airships have any PR problems at all, they inevitably involve safety. A PepsiCo airship promoting Pizza Hut's Bigfoot pizza and rock group Pink Floyd's airship are recent casualties.

"Even documentaries favorable toward airships always begin with that damned Hindenburg clip," laments Mr. Spyrou.

Nevertheless, airships seem to maintain a warm, cuddly image.

"Everybody seems to have warm place in their heart for blimps," notes Scott Bennett, PR director for Airship International. "They will stop in a lot of small towns along the way [to an event] and half the town will come out to take a look."

Thus-in addition to whatever national TV coverage an airship might generate at a big sports event-it's likely to end up on the front page of a lot of local newspapers, he adds.

Mr. Bennett, whose company manages airships for Anheuser-Busch Cos., Gulf Oil Co. and Pink Floyd, admits "it is the kind of advertising that is hard to quantify."

So Airship International hired Joyce Julius Associates to give it a try. The researcher followed A-B's Shamu blimp around in 1992, doing a "National TV Impression Value" study.

The study claims the blimp garnered the equivalent of more than $10 million in ad purchases over the course of the year.

In terms of value, "I think it is dynamite," says the company principal, Joyce Julius.

While the growing number of airships used for marketing might generate worries about loss of uniqueness, Mr. Bennett isn't losing any sleep.

"They seem like they are ubiquitous but they are really not and that is testimony to how effective they are as an advertising tool," he says.

Whatever life blimps may have brought to marketing, Mr. Renny points out that it is more than returned: "Without the marketing role, blimps would have gone out a long time ago."

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