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Name-calling, finger-pointing, taunting, insulting. It's all part of the advertising wars in the nasty '90s.

A spate of snide comparative ads has invaded media outlets, bewildering consumers but providing a shot of adrenaline to ad-starved newspaper publishers.

Chief culprits aren't just the usual also-rans looking to make a mark. Dominant but vulnerable marketers, who used to be content simply ignoring their smaller competitors, have increasingly opted to fight back. And they're no longer using oblique references to their competitors; many come right out and name names.

Visa USA responded to American Express' new Optima True Grace Card by slamming AmEx's weaker merchant acceptance.

Not to be outdone, AmEx last week fired back, disputing Visa's numbers while attempting to refocus the debate on finance fees, True Grace's major selling point. AmEx's newspaper spread-appearing the same day in many of the same papers as Visa's-offered a mocking variation of its rival's long-running tagline: "Visa. It's everywhere you want to pay more interest charges."

Meanwhile, AT&T went after MCI Communications' Friends & Family II discount calling plan, claiming in ads last week that MCI's promised discounts of up to 40% really average 13%.

American Home Products' Advil is attacking Procter & Gamble Co.'s new Aleve analgesic with a TV spot that seizes on Aleve's recommended 12-hour dosage, a response to Aleve's campaign that claimed Advil wasn't stronger and Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol didn't last as long.

IBM Corp. fired back at a Hewlett-Packard Co. discount offer, reminding its rival that "to become No. 1 in the business computer market it takes more than just shooting at the leader." And Chevron aimed its guns at Texaco's Clean System 3 gasoline claims, ultimately forcing Texaco to modify its ads.

The Pepsi-Lipton Tea Partnership in the summer ran a clever radio and point-of-purchase campaign aimed at fast-growing rival Snapple Natural Beverages.

Newspapers are the preferred medium for this curmudgeonly ad assault because they're cheaper and faster than TV spots, and often more effective at generating news coverage. They also can provide more information but, amid the charges and counter-charges, often wind up confusing the issue more than illuminating it.

"They're creating a red herring to obfuscate the point that they're feeling threatened," said an AmEx spokesman of Visa's campaign by BBDO Worldwide, New York. Of course, the same could be said for AmEx and its advertising from Ogilvy & Mather.

Some analysts say the efforts are better at soothing CEOs' egos than swaying public opinion.

"It almost becomes defensive communications," said Jim Arnold, chairman of Arnold & Truitt, a New York management consultancy. "The benefit message is so clouded in irritable language and sort of bullying tactics that I just think most people tune it out."

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