Purveyors of debit cards are puzzling over how to advertise a product that many consumers have never heard of and don't know how to use.

MasterCard and Visa have created awareness with national advertising, and the number of debit card users is on the rise. But debit cards still fall far short of credit cards' mass-market proportions.

"'Debit cards' is an abominable phrase," said Joel P. Friedman, managing partner of Andersen Consulting in San Francisco. "It has no marketing fizz. It has no emotional connection."

As a result, card associations and many issuers simply avoid the word "debit" in promotions. They use product names like Master Money and Visa check to drive home the relatively new concept.

Visa U.S.A. of San Francisco said its members had issued 46 million check cards by yearend 1996, up from 21 million in 1994.

Purchases on the cards topped $37 billion in 1996, almost double the $19 billion in 1994.

MasterCard International, based in Purchase, N.Y., said it had issued 15 million cards as of yearend 1996, a fourfold increase since 1994. Master Money transactions totaled $8.7 billion last year, up from $2.5 billion in 1994.

As debit card volumes have grown, so has promotional spending.

Michael A. Beindorff, Visa U.S.A. executive vice president of marketing and product management, said the card association has a separate advertising budget for debit cards.

Debit advertising "has expanded our media spending as well as the number of commercials that we'll produce in a year," Mr. Beindorff said.

Television spots for Visa check highlight its convenience. Among those pitching it are Daffy Duck, Bob Dole, and Deion Sanders, who are shown using the card without the hassle of producing the identification that a conventional check requires.

MasterCard takes a slightly different approach, shunning celebrities because they are seen as distracting from the message.

In one Master Money ad, two women rush to buy train tickets, and only the one with the debit card catches the train.

This ad and others also try to convey that these off-line cards can be used anywhere credit cards can.

Both bank-owned associations say consumers are getting the message.

Visa's tracking studies indicate that 80% of consumers know what a debit card is. MasterCard cites a survey by Payment Systems Inc., a Tampa-based market research firm, that put awareness at 72%.

But some industry observers aren't so sure.

"I still run into a very high percentage of people who don't even know these things exist," said Linda Sherry, editorial director of a San Francisco nonprofit called Consumer Action. "If there is a high percentage of people who know, it's probably customers of banks."

She did say that once consumers understand the concept of debit cards, they like it.

Standard Federal Bank in Troy, Mich., plans to introduce Visa check cards in August. Ursula Crenshaw, vice president of marketing at the $15 billion thrift, said each ATM cardholder would get the debit card.

"We're concerned that customers won't use them," Ms. Crenshaw said. "We'll be real specific: 'This replaces your ATM card."'

To get consumers to try debit cards, Visa and MasterCard supply issuers with fistfuls of direct-mail fliers.

They also dangle incentives: MasterCard offers debit card users at participating banks $6 off a purchase of $20 or more at Bed, Bath and Beyond Inc.; Visa gives free Sara Lee pies to dormant users who come back to life.

Lately, Visa has been giving more rewards: depending how often a check card is used and whether a bank is participating, a consumer can win anything from a 12-pack of Coca-Cola to a Sprint telephone card or a compact disk.

"They are inundating us with that stuff," Ms. Crenshaw said of Visa's marketing materials. "We're not sure if we're going to pick one of those or use our own."

Irene Katen, a vice president at MasterCard, said issuing institutions need to be relentless in their promotion of debit cards, since adapting to a new payment instrument is a lot to ask.

"You are trying to get people to change their behavior," Ms. Katen said. "We need to provide them with a strong reason to change."

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