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When First National Bank of Chicago took the unprecedented step of saying it would charge customers $3 to see tellers, rival First American Bank broke a radio spot poking fun.

Ten weeks later, that spot featuring comedian Tom Poston as a bank customer and actress Edie McClurg as a teller who charges her customer anytime he asks a question has produced a bizarre episode of Chicago teller wars.

First National has reacted to the First American commercial produced by Dick Orkin's Radio Ranch for Garfield-Linn & Co., Chicago, by hiring Mr. Poston and Ms. McClurg to parody their original spot. Further, while First American wasn't willing to buy exclusivity from the two actors, First National was, so Mr. Poston and Ms. McClurg are temporarily the exclusive property of First National for Chicago bank ads.

"It's kind of strange," said Mr. Orkin. "I have never had anyone who took our characters and situations and appropriated them for their own use."

One man who says he isn't too upset is Tom Wells, chairman-CEO of First American Bank, a bank one-tenth First National's size. He claims the new spots help promote his bank and renew attention to the $3 charge just as it was fading.

"Strategically it is a bafflement, but we love it," he said.

The original radio spot began April 30, six days after First National unveiled its new charges. Although First National's charges only apply after a customer exceeds a number of teller visits a month, widespread publicity of the changes hit before the bank told either its customers or staff.

First American jumped in with print ads headlined, "Why pay there, when we'll pay you to bank here" and offering a $10 bonus to open an account. But it was the radio portion of the $300,000 campaign produced in less than a week that earned First National's ire. The spot ran for two months.

"Hi, I need to talk to you about my checking account," says Mr. Poston to the teller. "There is a $3 charge to talk to the teller, sir," responds Ms. McClurg.

"Wha.... oh, OK," says Mr. Poston. "I was looking over my statement and I was wondering....

"Is that a question?" responds Ms. McClurg, " ..... well, questions are extra sir, that's $6," she says as the commercial continues.

First National, which doesn't charge for questions, said the spot further confused customers.

"What we realized was that our customers ended up with a misperception," said Tom Kelly, assistant VP. "They had a fear to ask questions and the first impression was they would be charged $3 every time they asked."

First National's boutique agency, LeRowe & Armstrong, hired the two actors to parody their original spot with Mr. Poston and Ms. McClurg playing a couple.

"Questions are extra, no, no," Mr. Poston moans in the opening of one of the new spots, which began running June 28.

"Honey, honey, wake up," says Ms. McClurg . "You were having a bad dream."

"It was awful. I dreamed a First Chicago teller was charging me for questions," Mr. Poston says. "And you were the teller .... You were really mean and you were going $3, $12, $18 .... "

The spot explains that First National charges nothing for questions and another attacks First American's fees for other services.

First American claims customers hearing the new spots think they are First American's.

"What has happened is people are calling First American Bank," said Don Rutz, exec VP-management supervisor for Garfield-Linn. "People think we are continuing to needle First Chicago."

Mr. Wells said he is delighted. "Any time they want to talk about charging $3 for a teller over the airwaves, we applaud it .*.*. The issue had subsided, and they absolutely put it back."

First National, however, says its ads cleared up confusion. "I don't think it matters who people think sponsored it as long as they understand we don't charge for questions," Mr. Kelly said.

First National recently agreed to merge with with Detroit's NBD Bancorp to create the nation's seventh-largest bank. No decision has been made whether to extend the $3 charges to present NBD bank customers.

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