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MediaMeanderings: Has there ever before been a time in Hollywood history that a mere 12 letters on movie marquees could provide the full titles of four first-run pictures? "Nell," "I.Q.," "Red" and "Run" ...

Perfect ambiguity in a newspaper ad critic's blurb for "The Quick and the Dead" tells us "Sharon Stone has never been better." Never explain, never complain.

Leo rising: It's definitely Leonardo DiCaprio's time: major pieces on the 20-year-old film star in the March Details and Movieline, the Feb. 12 New York Times Magazine, plus a Vanity Fair page (wherein Michael Musto begins with: "Mix James Dean's brooding with the impish appeal of Mickey Rooney ...") The profiles try draping the late River Phoenix mantle on him, but DiCaprio will have none of it. The kid enjoys Nintendo and lives with his mom. Details' Rob Tannenbaum reports that when filming "The Basketball Diaries," Leo "snorted Ovaltine" in the drug scenes and "at the end of each day, he used a Q-Tip to scrape crusted chocolate powder from inside his nose." Did he first dip the Q-Tip in milk? But, hey, maybe this is one habit that deserves to catch on.

Speaking of which: The new ads and commercials have gone out to media from advertising's Partnership for a Drug-Free America, and they now include an "800" number to encourage kids to seek help. Hundreds of media executives who attended a special White House briefing last month applauded the new work and heard Lee Brown, director of our Office of National Drug Control Policy, explain the Clinton Administration's approach to the drug problem, such as it is. But amid the mutual back-slapping that went on, there were undertones of concern. Such as: Why didn't President Clinton, who appears in the new spots, include the drug problem in his State of the Union speech? Dr. Brown told some attendees that when he last checked, the drug reference was there. It presumably got cut at the last minute. Partnership volunteers are now seeking a renewed show of media support since the ad campaign tackles the "gateway trap," focusing on kids between the ages of 9 and 15, where pot usage is rising. The good news is that the Partnership volunteer effort is now strong enough to move forward without White House commitment.

What's new? In the agency business? Not much, according to a surprisingly candid new book about McCann-Erickson. Part of "Truth Well Told," collected and written by M-E PR chief Stew Alter, covers unsparingly the rise and fall of Marion Harper, free-spending architect of the agency's pioneering "global advertising," "integrated advertising" and "think tank" concepts. One doesn't expect such candor from in-house books.

Sound bites: Here's how the brilliant Michiko Kakutani opens her New York Times book review of "Border Music": "Having sold more than 10 million copies of his first two books, `The Bridges of Madison County' and `Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend,' Robert James Waller has fed his hackneyed romance recipe back into the computer and come up with his worst book yet, a truly atrocious ballad about a part-time cowboy and a one-time topless dancer that gives new meaning to the words sappy, sexist, mannered and cliched." Let's see 'em pull a quotable quote out of that.

As it relates how the creation of new national ethnic culture museums advance the cause of political correctness, The Econo (Jan. 28) notes that "Euphemisms to avoid upsetting the extreme ethnic sensitivities of some Americans are not confined to American Indians. Outside the United States, the autobiography of Nelson Mandela was advertised with the slogan: `Tribesman, terrorist, prisoner, president.' In the U.S., the sales pitch was amended to read, `Rebel, prisoner, peacemaker, president."'

Out of sync: Just as IBM Corp. decides to drop its famous dress code and permit employees to dress casually at work, what happens? The March Esquire and Details, that's what. The former carries a two-page feature instructing readers on how to tie "classic" necktie knots so they can dress up like gentlemen. The latter has five pages of suit-and-tie-clad male models and copy that tells us "grunge" and "baggy-ass hip-hop gear" are out." Maybe hip-hop will hop on over to IBM?

Wafer waiver: New England Confectionary Co., maker of those white, purple, pink and yellow Necco candy hearts, says the "Dig Me" wafer will join "Wild One," "Crazy" and "Solid" on Necco's "out" list. Still "in" are "Honey Bun," "Luv Ya" and "Hug Me." Cool.

L.A. law: I've learned that a Los Angeles lawyer, Robert Shapiro, is wearing a new lapel button that has one of those diagonal red lines slashing across the word "Sidebars." I've checked and cannot find where this column has included material that would offend the aforementioned party. Objection overruled.

Jacobson for Jackson? Let's welcome the newest-and unlikeliest-Michael in Pepsi's future: Michael Jacobson, newsletter publisher extraordinaire and executive director of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. A man who has been warning against the perils of consuming Chinese, Mexican and Italian food, he also has conducted a long-running food fight against American advertising.

In a January New York Times article criticizing our schools for selling fast-foods that are "frequently brimming with fat, salt and calories," Jacobson passed along the word that PepsiCo's Taco Bell would be reducing its menu's fat content for schoolchildren. And then, after Pepsi did introduce its Taco Bell lower-fat menu, Jacobson was quoted as calling it "a tremendous improvement" and "more than a marketing gimmick." What next? A Taco Bell TV spot where Michael Jacobson gets to chow down a hearty, but politically correct, fast-food meal? And wash it down with a Diet Pepsi? Can't you smell these marketing gimmicks a mile away?

But the fact is that Jacobson is not mellowing. He recently called on parents to get schools to teach their youngsters about "marketers' ploys." At stake, he wrote, "is who will be allowed to shape our children's values." Recognizing that nobody shapes values better than his Center, I wonder what he would do with parents who are in marketing?

LIRR lessons: Largely overlooked by our news media immediately after Colin Ferguson was convicted of his Long Island Railroad gunfire massacre was the appeal to magazine publishers by relatives of survivors and the six slain commuters. On Court TV, they called on magazines to reject ads by marketers of automatic weapons and bullets. That proposal goes nowhere as the media remain fixed on Ferguson's mental condition. Next case.

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