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AOL advertising takes off

The giant online service is trying a new marketing approach with a three-year hot air balloon campaign, looking to inflate its mainstream image.

In a move that may tempt critics to call the company "full of hot air," America Online (AOL) announced today the inflation of its very own hot air balloon.

The seven-story-tall aircraft will embark on a 100-city, three-year tour, starting with an appearance April 11 at the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington. Adorned with 30-foot-tall AOL logos, the balloon will offer tethered rides, weather permitting. But more is riding on the tour than thrill-seekers.

"We're looking to take AOL makes online waves our strong online community brand out and touch the world in offline ways," said AOL senior vice president of brand marketing Audrey Weil. "We're always looking for ways to spark people's imagination and show that AOL has a strong, vibrant, grassroots, big-picture brand. We think the balloon is a really good symbol for that."

Internet Advertising Bureau president Rich LeFurgy said he expected the marketing stunt to really take off.

"I think it's a phenomenal idea," said LeFurgy, who is also senior vice president of advertising for a joint venture between ABCNews.com (which has content agreements with both AOL and NEWS.COM) and ESPN.

"It's the start of the mainstreaming of digital brands at the consumer level. Up to now we've seen a little bit of television advertising, some print ads, and Yahoo has ventured onto radio," LeFurgy said. "But in terms of event marketing like this, taking the brand out to the people, we haven't seen very much. This will get potential Web users to literally stand up and take notice of the brand."

But some analysts cautioned that critics and rivals could deflate AOL's lofty plans.

"Digerati will be tempted to say that AOL has its head in the clouds," warned Peter Storck, group director for online advertising at Jupiter Communications. "A hot air balloon is by definition a sitting duck. Lycos, Excite, Yahoo, and access providers could be tempted to shoot arrows at AOL's balloon. It may not float."

AOL has long been known for its aggressive marketing techniques, including mass mailing of its software with free hours for new users. But the company has been relatively quiet on the marketing front of late, according to Forrester Research analyst Kate Delhagen, who applauded the campaign.

"This will be a good launch pad for their 1998 marketing efforts," she said.