Priceline, Shatner end their duet

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With its stock price faltering and top executives leaving, no longer plans to use "Star Trek" luminary William Shatner as its pitchman, people close to the situation said.

The Internet site, where individuals name a price they want to pay for travel options or other things, has built its brand by using Mr. Shatner first in print, then heavy radio and finally in TV that began in early 2000. A commercial that used Mr. Shatner pledging that Priceline will continue to serve its customers that ran over the holidays was apparently Mr. Shatner's swansong.

That interim ad, which detailed the number of airline tickets and hotel rooms the company had sold, was perceived as much as keeping Priceline front-and-center for consumers as it was a way to reassure investors who have seen the strafing of Internet marketers. Priceline today was trading at $2 per share, near its all-time low of $1.06. The stock's 52-week high was $104.25.

A Priceline spokesman said Mr. Shatner's contract runs through October, but said he would not speculate on the actor's future relationship with the company. A spokeswoman for Mr. Shatner also declined to comment.

The company is quietly rolling out a new campaign on national cable and in the New York market (other local markets may also be included) that offers a message touting the options travelers will have if they save money by using Priceline to get to their desired locale. The first spot, a semi-animated ad, broke Jan. 2. More ads will follow, all with the "spend less live more" tag.

Mr. Shatner became one of the first celebrities to endorse an Internet company. They later created buzz with the TV spots spoofing his long-ago efforts to become a lounge singer. Compensated primarily in stock grants, he was reported to be one of the country's highest-paid pitchmen, although that sum has declined with the stock prices.

Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, New York, produced the latest campaign as well as the Shatner work. The agency won the travel marketer's business in 1999. It inherited Mr. Shatner as pitchman and broke his first Priceline spots at the beginning of 2000. The agency referred calls to Priceline.

One knowledgeable executive said the decision not to use Mr. Shatner stemmed from a desire to keep the marketing fresh.

"It had run its course. You couldn't deliver any new message with [the year-old Shatner campaign]," he said.

The new campaign comes on the heels of complaints about customer service, as well as the resignation of key officers including the CFO for the Stamford, Conn., company. Founder Jay Walker has returned to his previous Internet business incubator company. Priceline has said it will refocus on core businesses of hotel and flight reservations, having shelved plans to expand into automobile insurance and home mortgages. It has already abandoned the sale of groceries.

-- By Hillary Chura and David Goetzl

Copyright January 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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