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High-Tech Marketers Love ‘Love Bug’

Some high-tech marketers are giving the “ILOVEYOU” virus a big wet kiss.

They are convinced this is the perfect time to tell the world about their cool software or services that they say can protect computers from future “ILOVEYOU” wannabes.

Yesterday, just days after the so-called “love bug” attacked hundreds of thousands of computers, antivirus companies such as Symantec Corp. and Network Associates Inc.’s myCIO.com unit plastered full-page ads in big newspapers to sell their services.

Even companies that have little to do with building antivirus software ran ads piggybacking on virus fears. All are competing to gain a bigger chunk of a market that generated sales of $1.2 billion in 1999, according to IDC Corp., a market-research firm.

When the Melissa virus hit 100,000 computers last year, marketers were slow to respond, and ran few ads promoting themselves. Not this time. For companies that make computer-infrastructure software, a widespread and havoc-wreaking virus can be better than any celebrity pitchman or multimillion-dollar campaign.

“It is a golden opportunity,” says Lon Otremba, president of Mail.com Inc., a New York-based e-mail company, which ran full-page ads in the New York Times, USAToday and The Wall Street Journal. “We can save people some grief and at the same time sign up some customers.”

Mail.com pulled together its “love bug” ad campaign in just a few harried hours. Last Thursday morning, Mr. Otremba received a call from Aaron Fessler, the president of Mail.com’s Allegro subsidiary which sells a service, MailZone, that blocks viruses, spam e-mail and offensive content such as pornography and profanity from corporate e-mail.

“He said, ‘This is bigger than Melissa,’” Mr. Otremba recalls. About 45 minutes later Mr. Otremba was on the phone with his advertising agency, Della Femina/Jeary & Partners, ordering up ads that would tell the world how MailZone performed for its customers. An hour later, the agency sent over its first ideas.

The result was an ad featuring the words “I LOVE YOU” in huge letters. “Last Thursday, these three innocent words brought the Internet world to its knees,” the ad said. “Except for those 1,500 corporations protected by MailZone from Mail.com.” Mr. Otremba says Mail.com has snared at least 20 new customers since the ads appeared.

Mail.com said it first got word of the virus at 6 a.m. on Thursday. It built software to block the virus by 6:18 a.m. At the virus’s peak, Mail.com was blocking one copy every six seconds.

The “love bug’ outbreak prompted Network Associates, one of the biggest producers of antivirus software, to push up a planned advertising campaign for its myCIO.com unit, which automatically updates antivirus software for big corporate networks. “We decided to kick it off earlier because of this particular problem,” says Peter Watkins, president and chief operating officer.

Xdrive also smelled a marketing opportunity, even though its have little to do with e-mail or viruses. The privately held Santa Monica, Calif., company ran a scary full-page ad that said, “It shut down multinational corporations. It ruined futures. Perhaps careers.” But Xdrive clients emerged, the ad said, with their “businesses and lives intact.”

Keith Pinter, Xdrive’s executive vice president and general manager, business services, practically gushes when talking about the “love bug,” calling it “this wonderful occurrence.”

But Xdrive isn’t a virus killer. Rather it acts as a virtual hard drive that is accessed via the Internet. Users save their word-processing files or spreadsheets to their Xdrive and can then share the documents with others who have the right password.

What’s the connection with viruses? Xdrive uses software from Symantec to scan the documents for viruses. Not only that, since the “love bug” was spread via e-mail, Mr. Pinter points out that if people used Xdrive to share important documents instead of e-mail, they wouldn’t have suffered from the virus’s effects.

“This gave us a great chance to help people understand that e-mail isn’t always the only and best solution,” says Mr. Pinter.

But some advertising-industry veterans say using a catastrophe to market a product can backfire if the product isn’t obviously related to the crisis. “It looks too obvious in many cases,” says Ellis Verdi of DeVito/Verdi Inc., a New York-based advertising agency. “Consumers are not idiots.”

The “love bug” was the largest virus in recent history, affecting more than 600,000 computer users, according to the CERT Coordination Center at Carnegie Mellon University. The most rampant virus prior to it was the Melissa virus, which affected about 100,000 computer users.


By Andrea Petersen & Julia Angwin, The Wall St. Journal

Copyright © 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.