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ROME-Late last year, they laughed when Italian media magnate Silvio Berlusconi began warning the country's politicians to do a better job or he would do it himself. But it's Mr. Berlusconi who has had the last laugh. He was able meticulously to devise a strategy for forming a new political party and position himself to become Italy's Prime Minister.

Yet, even when he began running ads on his three TV networks starting in January to introduce Forza Italia as a "club," few took him seriously.

Three months later, however, Forza Italia became Italy's leading political party, with 21% of the vote and Silvio Berlusconi was nominated prime minister.

Mr. Berlusconi's debut in politics and electoral victory is the result of a marketing strategy he devised that used advanced direct marketing, advertising and PR techniques.

Always accompanied by a personal make-up artist and photographer, he drew expertly on the synergies of television, marketing, advertising, publishing and the champion soccer team that are part of his Fininvest group. He set up his own polling company, Diakon, to provide heavily biased data that showed his tremendous popularity. He reassigned his marketing staff, borrowed TV personalities to run for parliament and persuaded Saatchi & Saatchi Italy President Robert Lasagna to leave his advertising career and become his campaign manager.

In selecting candidates from his party, he gave them video tests to ascertain their communications skills and photogenic suitability. Then he trained them in fashion and grooming-and, above all, to smile.

Italy was ready for change after a two-year political corruption scandal had all but wiped out the two main parties that had governed the country since 1948. And while Italians yearned for a charismatic leader and different style of politics, Mr. Berlusconi's rise was nothing short of a miracle.

In January, Mr. Berlusconi introduced Forza Italia as a citizens' movement, supported by a massive ad campaign of 45 spots per day, ranging from :10 to 2 minutes in length. The spots use soccer game terminology-"Forza Italia" itself is a stadium cheer meaning "Go Italy"-and shows a large waving flag with Italy's national colors. A catchy, patriotic jingle, later Forza Italia's party anthem, was written by Mr. Berlusconi himself.

"Your hands united with mine ... together we'll build a new Italy," sang the 58-year-old Mr. Berlusconi at his first party convention in early February.

Populist issues like taxation and libertarian doctrine formed the basis for his party platform, while occassional wild promises, like that of a million new jobs, added the finishing touch.

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