First USA Bank is trying to attract new cardholders with free stored- value telephone and gasoline cards.

The Delaware-based issuer, a unit of Banc One Corp., is sending the preapproved products, Platinum Connect and Platinum Supreme cards, to consumers nationwide.

Card issuers are continually looking for ways to break through the clutter of direct mail offers, most of which push premium products.

To that end, First USA has designed a business line called customer- activated value cards, which combine credit card features with a promotional stored-value function.

The Connect card offers 60 free minutes of calling time and 10% rebates on all calling card calls, while the Supreme card offers $10 for gas.

The credit card option has an introductory interest rate of 4.9% for six months, which then climbs to a fixed rate of 12.99%.

Cardholders must call First USA to activate each option.

"There are probably opportunities for cobranded programs, and the interest rate makes it a card that will attract revolvers," said Jeffrey Baxter, principal at Forest Hill, Md.-based S.J. Baxter & Associates.

Some industry observers do not see First USA's move as particularly innovative; they said the issuer lifted the idea from the telecommunications sector.

"It seems a big effort to get a higher degree of activation from their platinum card" marketing, said Don Berman, president of Cardholder Management Services in Plainview, N.Y. "I am not sure it will give them a lot more activity on the card."

Acquisition costs could also add up if many customers use the prepaid feature but not the credit card option.

A spokesman for First USA said the issuer has been testing Platinum Connect since September and found that in most cases consumers activated the credit card.

Other cards under development are to offer merchandise and concierge benefits.

Despite record mailings last year, "acquisition rates are in the tank," said Russ Schoper, president of Business Developments International in Alpharetta, Ga.

"But the underlying objective is attracting high-quality revolvers, and if you can lift your response rate from 1.3% to 1.4%, that could easily justify a program like this," he said.

In separate news, First USA and the League of American Theatres and Producers have joined forces to create a cobranded card for patrons of Broadway productions.

First USA is one of many new sponsors being courted by the league to promote products using the cachet of New York's theater district.

"Our aim is to expand and build the Broadway brand and consumer awareness of Broadway around the country," said Kylie Robertson, a league spokeswoman.

The no-fee Live Broadway Visa card will be officially launched June 8, the day after the Tony Awards.

Cardholders will be rewarded with points, based on their purchases, redeemable for such items as limited-edition memorabilia and entry to select Broadway events and promotions.

The card design and interest rate structure have yet to be completed.

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