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Looking to develop racier images, Mercedes-Benz and Firestone are using the Indianapolis 500 to accelerate their marketing engines.

Mercedes-Benz of North America-looking for younger, more active buyers as it prepares to enter new product segments such as sport-utility vehicles-returned to the race in 1994 after a 71-year absence and quickly made a mark.

Al Unser Jr. won the pole position and then rode to victory in the May 29 race in a car powered by a Mercedes engine. He took over the race after early leader Emerson Fittipaldi, also using a Mercedes engine, hit a wall.

Mercedes wasted no time in capitalizing on Mr. Unser's accomplishments. The automaker ran page ads from Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, in USA Today and The New York Times on May 16 to tout the winning of the pole position, and on May 31 broke another ad celebrating the race victory. The latter ad ran in the Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated and AutoWeek.

"When people think of performance, they don't often think of Mercedes-Benz," said A.B. Shuman, director-public relations for the car marketer. "We want to reinvigorate that performance dimension, and have people think of Mercedes-Benz in a high tech, high performance way."

Mercedes began revamping its stuffy, pricey image last fall after getting a shock from the success of upstart Japanese luxury automobile brands such as Lexus and Infiniti.

Mercedes counteracted perceptions that its cars were too costly by incorporating the $29,900 price tag of the new C220 into advertising. The move has paid off with a 29.6% increase in overall sales in the first four months of this year vs. the same period of 1993.

In 1997, Mercedes will begin building its first entry in the growing sport-utility segment at a plant in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Also, Mercedes is developing a small, three-cylinder "city car" to bow in overseas markets by 1997 or 1998, possibly coming to the U.S.

Looking toward 1995 is Bridgestone/Firestone. The marketer hasn't been at Indy for two decades but in late March began advertising that it would return next year.

The company is renewing its commitment to the Indy 500 to communicate a shift in marketing emphasis toward Firestone tires, said Stan Cooper, manager-Firestone marketing.

The goal is to announce that "the quality of Firestone tires has improved dramatically," Mr. Cooper said.

The new campaign from TBWA, New York, touts Firestone Firehawk tires with ads running in enthusiast, consumer and motor sports magazines, like Sports Illustrated.

The headline reads "It has always been a contest between cars. It has always been a contest between drivers. Soon it will become a contest between tires."

In addition, Firestone is airing a 30-second spot on cable TV sports programming and on national programming in select markets.

The tire marketer is also promoting its return to the Indy 500 with point-of-purchase displays in retail locations. And in a "Return to Indy" sweepstakes, consumers can win a trip to the 1995 Indy 500, handled by Beisler & Associates.

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