City Enlists Emeril to Boost Gas Sales 

"Safe. And there when you need it," utilities spokeswoman Angela Fountain says in the ad, making natural gas sound like a well-behaved boyfriend.

The campaign represents a new direction for the Department of Public Utilities (slogan: "We Touch People's Lives Every Day"), department spokesman Bill Farrar says.

In the past, Farrar says, the department primarily focused on brand-awareness advertising — it would typically buy ad space in magazines declaring its existence without promoting a particular service. It has since abandoned that strategy in favor of more aggressively soliciting new gas customers. "We do have an obligation to generate new business as much as possible," Farrar says.

State and local laws forbid the city from making a profit on the gas utility; the department can recover its costs — essentially break even — and that's it.

But more gas users (the city has about 102,500) means stronger buying power to keep costs down, Farrar says, which helps offset operating costs. Since the department has given up its branding campaign and has stopped hiring outside companies to create its ads, Farrar says, the department has saved between $80,000 and $100,000.

This is the first year of the new approach, so the department doesn't yet know what kind of effect the ads are having. By the end of the 2007 fiscal year, the city will have a better idea if Emeril-watchers are signing up for natural gas.

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