High-Voltage Media Campaign Gives AST Image a Jump-Start

Greg Miller covers high technology for The Times. He can be reached at (714) 966-7830 and at greg.miller@latimes.com

A man carrying a boxed AST computer strides down the aisle of a computer store, bursts through the exit and into a crowd of people lining the sidewalk like screaming hordes at the Academy Awards.

As the man squeezes his way through, flashbulbs pop, Secret Service-type guards push the crowd back, and a bespectacled man wearing a bow tie drops to his knees. "I touched the box!" he wails.

This sequence is either: A) a recurring dream experienced by Ian Diery, chief executive of AST Research Inc. or B) a 30-second television commercial the Irvine-based computer manufacturer started running March 6.

The correct answer is B. Or at least it's the only answer the company will confirm.

After years of muted ad campaigns that depended more on word-of-mouth than high-voltage media messages, AST is rolling out the noisiest ad blitz in its history.

"We've got to get in people's faces," said Larry Fortmuller, vice president of corporate marketing at AST.

The centerpiece of the multimillion-dollar campaign is the company's first television spot since 1988. The company will run the ads, which tout AST's Advantage PCs, more than 700 times over the next few months on popular cable channels, including ESPN, CNN and Arts & Entertainment, Fortmuller said.

The company is also rolling out an extensive billboard campaign in major U.S. cities, and is ramping up its presence in newspapers and magazines. And in an effort to boost AST's profile on its home turf, the company is planning a local ad swell, including placing placards on taxis at John Wayne Airport.

The blitz is part of a broad attempt to revive the fortunes of the flagging company, which has posted losses totaling $324 million over the past six quarters.

Those dismal numbers explain why the company was reluctant to spend money on ads in recent years. The silent era is ending largely because AST has the money, thanks to the financial backing of Samsung Electronics, and a chief executive, Diery, who hails from the company that revolutionized television advertising: Apple Computer.

It's too early to tell whether the ads have boosted sales, but employees at the company who have had little to be excited about are suddenly buzzing, Fortmuller said.

"If you're an [AST] engineer, imagine what it's like to see that ad on television when you're with your friends and family," Fortmuller said. "I'd say we're pretty cranked up."

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