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The steel industry has launched a major advertising and public relations blitz to spread the news that steel should be the material of choice for the buying public.

The ad campaign, while not overtly targeted to competing materials such as plastics, espouses the benefits of the ``new steel'' as a superior material. The industry plans to spend $100 million over five years to run the ads.

Among the ads' claims are that steel is the most-recycled material on earth; that it is increasingly chosen for housing because it best withstands fires and other natural disasters; and that the automotive industry uses high-strength steel that reduces body weight while improving safety.

The ads bump against a long-running national media campaign from Washington-based American Plastics Council. APC's ``Plastic Makes It Possible'' ads trumpet that material's durability, safety and shatter-resistance while explaining how the industry is working to solve environmental problems.

The new steel offensive represents a high-powered assault from that industry's largest companies. For the first time, 28 of the top North American steel producers — including LTV Steel Co. Inc. in Cleveland and Chicago-based Inland Steel Industries Inc. — have joined with trade associations and suppliers to advertise.

To do so, they have created a Washington-based coalition called the Steel Alliance. The alliance, which includes 70 member companies, is devoted solely to spreading a positive message about steel, said the group's executive director, Mark Stephenson.

That message is long overdue, Stephenson said. Since the 1950s, when the ``U.S. Steel Hour'' was a top-rated TV variety show, the industry has not done enough to champion its own cause, he said.

``People gravitate toward their perceptions,'' Stephenson said. ``The material is taken for granted a lot. There's still the idea that the industry is low-tech, that it requires brawn rather than brains. In fact, it's just the reverse. To remain competitive, we've had to stay innovative and maintain cutting-edge processes.''

One of consumers' biggest misperceptions is that the steel industry no longer manufactures in North America, Stephenson said.

Beginning in May, the alliance began countering that perception with a national print and television campaign. A TV spot began airing on all major networks and cable stations, and print ads have appeared in major business publications and newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

The public awareness campaign, which has the tag line ``The New Steel: Feel the Strength,'' stresses that the material is lighter, stronger, cleaner, and more recyclable, versatile and affordable than ever before. Select ads emphasize that the industry has modernized its facilities at a combined cost of more than $50 billion and equate Superman's ``Man of Steel'' nickname with the material's strength.

The group also has held news conferences and other events for media and government officials in Washington, New York and Toronto, Stephenson said.

The steel industry joins other groups, including the plastics industry, cotton millers, milk producers and the pork industry (``Pork: The Other White Meat''), in marketing a positive industry spin.

Many of those groups have increased awareness of their products, and potentially built sales, said James Hoskins, senior vice president of Wirthlin Worldwide, a marketing research firm that conducted test marketing for both the APC and steel alliance campaigns.

``In the APC's case, the campaign actually reversed negative attitudes [about environmental impact] and enhanced the industry's image,'' Hoskins said. ``A lot of these campaigns build a residue of goodwill. They file an image in consumer memory banks for rainier days.''

APC's campaign has included a mix of national TV, radio and print ads. APC has not disclosed the campaign's cost, but Advertising Age, a sister publication of Plastics News, reported APC spent $28.4 million for plastics promotion during 1996. APC spent $18 million for its ``Take Another Look at Plastic'' campaign in both 1992 and 1993.

The high-profile steel campaign has not caused APC to change its advertising effort.

That's because steel lags behind other materials in APC's polls asking the public whether certain industries provide environmental benefits, said Bailey Condrey, APC director of advertising and new media.

About 55 percent of the people surveyed answered yes for plastics, paper, glass and aluminum, while only 45 percent said the steel industry provides environmental benefits, he said. That is according to an April poll, the most recent of APC's twice-a-year surveys, he said.

APC wants to keep the plastics industry ``in the band'' with other materials and is not concerned unless other materials pull ahead, Condrey said.

Since the steel ads, like the plastics campaign, promote the material without attacking others, they probably will improve the standing of steel without harming plastic, Condrey said.

The steel alliance's Stephenson agreed with Condrey that neither campaign necessarily will damage the other.

``We didn't set this out to be an us-or-them approach,'' Stephenson said. ``Instead, we just wanted to reinforce a positive attitude about steel. It's the first time all sections of our industry have come together to do that.''

Plastics News reporter Steve Toloken contributed to this story.