Originally created 02/11/99

Companies add computer glitch to marketing pitch



COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Call it the ultimate "going out of business" sale.

The Year 2000 computer glitch that doomsayers warn will lead to the end of the world as we know it has begun showing up in sales pitches for companies ranging from Apple Computer to a small-town bank.

"From time to time we sort of poke fun at that which is current," said Richard Lewis, who oversees the Absolut vodka account at the TBWA ChiatDay advertising firm in New York.

The vodka distiller plans to incorporate the Year 2000 problem in one of its long-running series of ads featuring Absolut bottles in surprise settings. The ad will debut in the April issue of Wired magazine and will show a partially formed bottle made up of 0s and 1s -- shorthand for the way computers store information.

The Year 2000 problem arises from the use in early computer programs of a two-digit format to express a year. Such computers could read the "00" of 2000 as 1900, which could cause a variety of failures.

Some computer experts say the problems probably will result in isolated minor inconveniences if anything happens at all. Others fear a global economic meltdown, accompanied by food shortages and the collapse of the nation's power grid.

From a marketing perspective, it doesn't matter which scenario is the more accurate one.

"It's irrelevant what actually happens," Lewis says. "It's all about the buildup."

If anything, the extra attention might prove helpful to folks who aren't either technology wizards or militia members, says Bruce Webster, author of "The Y2K Survival Guide."

"I think the problem is serious, but I don't think it's the end of the world," said Webster, a Dallas-based technology consultant.

"The majority of people are going to have power that weekend," he predicted. "Everybody's car is going to start just fine. Frankly, I'm more concerned about the lack of general awareness."

Webster, whose book offers some basic tips for coping with the computer bug, said people ought to know they should keep track of their bank balances or credit card bill, for example, to make sure they're calculated correctly.

Peoples Bank in Gambier recently began offering Y2K-guaranteed savings accounts as a way to let its customers know it was dealing with the situation, said Joan Jones, chief executive officer of the one-branch bank about 50 miles northeast of Columbus.

The accounts, which carry a nominal interest rate on balances of a maximum $500, are aimed at people who might otherwise take their money out of the bank before Jan. 1, Ms. Jones explained.

"If there should be, God forbid, a run on cash, we're guaranteeing it will be there," she said.

So far, two or three people have opened the accounts.

But even if the worst does strike, Ms. Jones isn't too worried.

"We can go back to being manual," she said, explaining that the bank didn't start using an in-house computer until about 1 1/2 years ago and used ledger cards to keep track of loans until about two years ago.

Not everyone is happy with the mainstreaming of the millennium problem.

"There is so much misinformation and noise out there already. This will only add to it," says Leon Kappelman, co-chairman of the Society for Information Management's Year 2000 working group at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas.

"It contributes to a false sense of security," he said.

Take, for example, the ad Apple ran during this year's Super Bowl. It showed the talking computer Hal from "2001: A Space Odyssey" explaining that Macintosh was the only computer to operate perfectly as the year 2000 arrived and other computers malfunctioned.

"Sure, the hardware is fine," Kappelman noted. But even the most up-to-date computer could have a problem if its owner runs outdated software on it.

Paul Theroux, a New York marketing and promotions consultant, has a different problem with the recent interest in the Y2K problem: ineffectiveness.

Theroux, president of the Promotion Marketing Association, said companies ought to stick to describing the benefits of their products or services rather than hitching themselves to an unrelated and, in this case, potentially catastrophic event.

"I think we're going to see more of it, though, because it is a faddy type of creative process."