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American Century Ad Creates Sticky Situation

Fund sponsors occasionally like to ham it up in their ads, sometimes creating highly amusing investment scenarios. But in the case of American Century Investments of Kansas City, Mo., the firm had no intention of hamming up its peanut butter sandwich advertisement.

The black-and-white print advertisement, which has been running in major publications including The Wall Street Journal, Barron's and Smart Money since last November, has fostered a bit of controversy. The ad features a neatly cut peanut butter sandwich atop a sheet of wax paper layered on a plate. The text explains that even now, 44 years after starting the firm, the firm's founder Jim Stowers continues to eat his usual peanut butter sandwich in the firm's cafeteria every day at noon. No lobster tails for this traditional gent, the ad explains.

But several weeks ago, an investor called American Century questioning the accuracy of the ad, explained Brian Spano, a company spokesman. What was the investor's beef?

"The investor was concerned that the peanut butter sandwich looked like a ham sandwich," Spano said. The firm's feedback team quickly provided assurances that the ad was no baloney and contained no misrepresentations. In fact, they explained, the sandwich was stuffed with plain old peanut butter.

The concern was amusing. But American Century admits it was a bit surprised but pleased with other, more empathetic responses it received regarding the sandwich ad.

One letter received from a woman in her 70s enthusiastically explained that her husband similarly eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich everyday for lunch, said Catherine Bernard, vice president of corporate advertising and media at American Century. An emotional connection was made.

"We thought we had a great and timely story to tell. We wanted to distinguish ourselves through our unique heritage," Bernard said. The tale about founder Stower's lunchtime ritual, despite the fact that he is no longer managing money on a daily basis at the firm, exemplifies the firm's culture, she said.

Yet a second letter written by a longtime mutual fund investor was from an older gentleman, who expounded that he, too, is a peanut butter sandwich fan, having eaten them all of his life. He further bragged that he had encouraged his children to follow suit and stick to the stick-to-your-ribs food because of its health benefits, said Spano.

Of course, that isn't the only American Century advertisement that discusses the life and times of the firm's founder. A similar new ad entitled "American Inspiration," which premiered in The Wall Street Journal in March, describes how while his wife slept, Stowers crept into the bathtub of their hotel room and wrote the proprietary computer investment program that was the foundation of the fund firm.

"These real stories give people a reason to trust us, without us saying trust us,'" Bernard summed up.

Other ads in the value genre are planned, Bernard said. But no additional ads about the founder are currently on the drawing board

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