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Mexico's Slim uses phone campaign to boost image
* Slim charity using aggressive marketing to polish image
* Tycoon has in-house operators making calls day and night
* "Did you know Slim helps Christian pilgrims?" poll asks
By Patrick Rucker
MEXICO CITY, May 6 (Reuters) - Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim is using a controversial mass marketing tactic to give his public image a boost while regulators and competitors question the business practices of the world's richest man.
Call center workers dial Mexican homes day and night asking residents if they knew about Slim's charities that support local sports, public health, Formula One racing and even pilgrimages to the country's biggest Catholic shrine.
"Were you aware that Carlos Slim aids pilgrims on their way to the Basilica de Guadalupe?" was one question posed to a Reuters correspondent.
"Did you know that Carlos Slim has built a beautiful art museum that is free and open to the public?" operators ask.
Surveyors begin by asking callers what they think of Slim and then, after about a dozen questions about his charities, ask again what they think of the billionaire.
Slim's rivals and consumer groups are waging a media blitz calling him a monopolist, and the 71-year-old is facing a $1 billion fine for market abuses in the telecoms sector. [ID:nN158093]
The image campaign involves hundreds of operators making tens of thousands of calls a day, one of them told Reuters.
It is sponsored by Fundacion Telmex, Slim's largest charity, the operator said, and started early last month around the time that full-page ads mocking Slim began to appear in local papers.
Reuters visited the call center in downtown Mexico City where staff said the campaign was going on. A request to speak to a manager on site was declined on the grounds the poll was "confidential."
Fundacion Telmex and Telvista, the polling firm also controlled by Slim, did not respond to several requests for comment.
The operation is a survey of public opinion but it has all the hallmarks of a 'push poll' in which respondents are asked loaded questions in order to shape their view of a company or individual, one branding expert said.
"Going after your audience with this kind of provocative outreach is the nature of push polling," said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a New York-based market researcher.
Push polls are considered one of the dark arts of U.S. political campaigns where they have been used to spread negative rumors about political opponents.
"I think that they are regarded as acceptable and no more than that," said Passikoff.
The branding executive said he had never heard of a push poll being used as it is in Mexico and said that few public people are recognizable enough for such a campaign to work.
Many of Mexico's leading daily newspapers on Friday carried a front-page advertisement for Telcel, Slim's wireless brand in the country, in part of a stepped-up branding campaign.
This week, Mexico's Supreme Court sided with regulators who are trying to settle complaints of anticompetitive practices by Slim's telecommunications competitors. After the ruling, Slim's enterprises will not be able to file injunctions to thwart the regulator in a stalling tactic.
Slim's fixed-line and mobile telephone services dominate the Mexican market, and the ruling could go some way to weakening the tycoon's grip. (Reporting by Patrick Rucker; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)
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