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Checkmate ! Deep Blue Is IBM Publicity Coup
By Bart Ziegler


The Wall Street Journal
Page B1
(Copyright (c) 1997, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

No matter who wins the chess match between an IBM computer and Garry Kasparov, the company already has scored an impressive victory.

International Business Machines Corp. portrays the contest between the Russian chess master and its Deep Blue supercomputer as a triumph of technology. That may be, but it looks more like a triumph of public relations.

The match has appeared on the cover of Newsweek, in a Washington Post editorial, a commentary on National Public Radio, on network newscasts and in countless stories in hundreds of newspapers worldwide. Even Letterman and Leno have weighed in. The tone of the breathless coverage makes it seem like some world-changing event.

Only if your world is marketing. IBM spent an estimated $5 million on the rematch with Kasparov -- including publicity, prizes and building and programming the computer. But it says it has already reaped the equivalent of more than $100 million worth of favorable and free publicity. IBM's Internet site, which is covering the competition live, drew an astounding one million viewers during Tuesday's game, the company says, perhaps the most highly trafficked event ever on the World Wide Web.

"Money almost can't buy the advertising they're getting out of this," says Peter Harleman, managing director at Landor Associates, a corporate-identity consulting firm in San Francisco.

The barrage of favorable coverage is welcome news for a company that only recently has regained its blue-chip luster. IBM's image took a drubbing in the mid-1990s when it laid off tens of thousands of workers, closed plants and posted billion-dollar losses.

The chess match, staged at a New York conference center, so far has gone off without any embarrassing glitches -- always a risk when computers are involved. Last summer, IBM's high-profile sponsorship of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta turned into a public-relations disaster when its scoring system spewed out the wrong results for reporters. IBM drew plenty of press coverage then, too, but almost all of it was negative.

IBM executives, speaking privately, say they weighed the pros and cons of sponsoring a rematch between Kasparov and Deep Blue ; the original match last year ended with Kasparov's victory but generated lots of positive news coverage. Still, the Olympics fiasco was among their concerns.

The executives, led by David Kalis, the company's vice president of communications, concluded that the publicity from a rematch would be largely favorable. "It's such a natural story. It just captivates people," says one IBM communications executive.

And the Armonk, N.Y., company made sure the event got noticed. It has featured it in full-page newspaper ads, cranked out reams of press releases, created the elaborate Web site and plastered Manhattan buses and construction sites with posters touting the competition. Even IBM's chairman, Louis V. Gerstner Jr., couldn't resist crowing about Deep Blue at a meeting with securities analysts this week. "We like to view it as the world's greatest chess player playing Garry Kasparov," he quipped.

Still, this isn't the Super Bowl. All the attention seems surprising for an event that involves an arcane computing technology and a game without a mass following. Why such fascination? In part, it is the appeal of an age-old rivalry: Man vs. machine.

"The Brain's Last Stand," screamed Newsweek's cover. "One man, one machine," said the New York Times.

The competition evokes the malevolent computer HAL in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the man-vs.-computer battles in countless episodes of TV's "Star Trek." The match, which concludes Sunday, also taps into the growing public fascination with technology spurred by the Internet boom.

"The chord it is striking is how far technology has come in replicating human thought," says John Uppgren, vice president of technology marketing at Gage Marketing Group Inc. in Minneapolis.

That, at least, is the popular conception. In fact, Deep Blue is not an "artificial intelligence" machine; such technology has never quite worked. Instead, it is a number-crunching dynamo able to calculate more than 200 million potential chess moves each second, then tap into a databank of how past games have been played to choose the most promising option.

The supercomputer is a modified version of a machine IBM sells commercially to help companies explore for oil, find relationships among the spending patterns of millions of customers and perform other complex tasks. Some of the media coverage has mentioned these commercial uses, another plus for IBM.

"They're doing a tremendous job of leveraging the brand in this," says John Lister, chief executive of the brand-identity firm Lister Butler Inc. in New York. "Not only do they have the IBM name attached to virtually every news report about this, but they even branded their computer the corporate color, blue."

There's another factor at work, though, in the publicity mill: the lack of other compelling stories to fill the nation's newspapers, TV shows and magazines. The economy is strong, the crime rate is plunging, the nation is at peace and everyone's tired of O.J.

And it doesn't hurt that the contest is close: Deep Blue and Kasparov each lost one game, while two others were draws -- holding out the tantalizing possibility that the Russian could become the first chess master to lose to a machine during the final two games this weekend.

Then the media would really kick into high gear.

Journal Link: For an on-line discussion of IBM's Deep Blue -Kasparov chess match, see The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition at


True North Posts Profit

True North Communications said it swung to a first-quarter profit from a net loss in the year-earlier period because of business from such clients as S.C. Johnson and Tambrands. The results beat analysts' expectations.

Net income totaled $215,000, or one cent a share, compared with a loss of $722,000, or three cents a share. A First Call consensus of analysts' estimates was for a net loss of five cents a share. Revenue increased 23% to $130.6 million. True North, of Chicago, owns the Foote, Cone & Belding ad agency, and TN Technologies, an on-line marketing company.
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