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Rebates safe from marketers

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NEW YORK — The federal government is poised to release the first batch of greenbacks due the American public under tax cuts pushed through by the Bush administration. Many Americans could find themselves with $300 to $600 burning a hole in their pockets.

But Madison Avenue will take a pass.

It seems few marketers are willing to make the extra effort necessary to capture the cash that, all told, could total as much as $39 billion distributed over a 10-week span, according to a U.S. Treasury spokeswoman. The first checks are slated to reach mailboxes the week of July 23.

But an informal survey of media outlets and groups of marketers reveals that few advertisers have indicated they will roll out any kind of targeted campaign to lure consumers into spending their soon-to-arrive windfall.

"It's not a significant enough sum for us to develop advertising campaigns that will attract new customers," says Mike Dunn, a spokesman for Datek Online Brokerage Services.

Online trading outfits like Datek and ETrade Group Inc. once spent marketing money like mad. Now, ETrade will stay silent at tax-refund time, says a company spokeswoman. Adds Datek's Dunn: "Probably, most people will spend it on their groceries."

Moreover, the way the tax money is being distributed — by Social Security number rather than geographic region or age — makes it almost impossible for marketers to figure out who to target and when to target them.

And, really now, how much can $300 do for an airline or food maker?

"I think this seems to marketers to be kind of silly," says Gene DeWitt, chairman and chief executive of the U.S. operations of Optimedia, a media buying firm owned by Publicis Groupe. If people were placing ads, DeWitt would know. "I think this is going to disappear in the economy like a couple of snowflakes on a warm day."

Not everyone intends to follow the let-the-money-go philosophy. Both Dell Computer Corp. and Gateway Inc. will run promotions or ad blitzes in order to get consumers to spend some of that tax rebate on computers. Spokesmen for both companies declined to elaborate.

Others expect a flurry of activity. Retailers, the folks who carpet-bomb newspapers with print ads whenever a holiday sale looms, "are keenly aware of the situation and keenly aware of the need to fire off at the proper moment," says Kurt Barnard, publisher of Barnard's Retail Trend Report, a trade publication. He suggests the right time to advertise is "three or four weeks before the checks are in the mail."

Tell that to some of the shopping giants.

"We do not expect to get a significant lift when those checks start arriving in the mailboxes," says Jan Drummond, a spokeswoman for Sears, Roebuck & Co.

How about superstore maven Wal-Mart Stores Inc.? The company sees "no promotions tied to the tax cut," says spokesman Tom Williams, and the chain won't say whether it expects a boost to overall sales.

As things stand now, however, newspapers and TV stations are seeing very little activity. The New York Times, the Boston Globe and USA Today have yet to notice any advertiser specifically ramping up efforts to snag the tax-refund money, according to spokeswomen for the newspapers' respective parents, New York Times Co. and Gannett Co.

Viacom Inc.'s CBS television network has seen "nothing specifically" related to tax rebate blitzing, says a network spokeswoman.

In Philadelphia, newspaper executives are suggesting local marketers take advantage of the opportunity. But sponsors who regularly buy ad space in The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News are reluctant, says Debbie Holzkamp, vice president of advertising for the Knight Ridder Inc. publications.

Advertisers, she said, "just aren't thinking about how to capture that business."