After getting hammered earlier this decade when Atkins dieters shunned pasta, sales of pasta sauce are simmering.

That's good for Campbell Soup Co.'s Prego Italian sauce brand, which is launching a national television advertising campaign Monday in a bid for a share of the growth.

While the Camden company would not disclose the cost of the campaign, it said spending would be nearly double last year's for Prego.

Jon Swallen, senior vice president of research at TNS Media Intelligence, said the company spent $16.4 million on Prego television commercials in 2006. TNS, a New York company that tracks advertising expenditures, said Prego advertising in 2005 totaled $15.1 million.

Prego sales fell for three consecutive years before edging up last year by 1.4 percent to $250.4 million, according to Information Resources Inc., a Chicago company that collects scanner data from major supermarkets, but not from Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Total sales of Italian sauces climbed 1.8 percent in 2006 to $1.4 billion, Information Resources said.

Kelly Berrie, Campbell's senior brand manager for Prego pasta sauces, said the company is changing its marketing strategy this year. Previously, Campbell emphasized general benefits, such as "bringing the family to the table," Berrie said.

In the new campaign, "there's more of a focus on taste differential" to bring attention to Prego specifically, not the entire category, she said.

Berrie, who has been at Campbell for 13 years, said competitors "were getting a free ride. . . . When we went heavy in a particular month, all the boats rose."

Campbell introduced Prego, the number-two canned spaghetti sauce, in 1981. Ragu, the number one brand, owned now by Unilever, hit the market in 1937.

The series of five television advertisements debuting Monday will feature celebrities and fictional characters, such as Popeye's Olive Oyl, tinkering with their Prego sauce - but reaching the conclusion that they don't need to add anything.

Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.