Second of Two Parts

The intercompany warfare that U.S. consumers have become accustomed to seeing in credit card advertising just doesn't happen overseas.

Card advertisers say their foreign campaigns consciously lean toward the genteel, in keeping with a cultural difference they see.

While Americans may find it good sport to watch rival companies bash each other, consumers in other countries would find it curious and distasteful.

International advertising tends to focus on products and their benefits.

For instance, in contrast to its domestic television commercials that dig relentlessly at American Express Co., Visa's advertisements in Europe and Asia refrain from attacking competing brands.

The ads vary by region but are uniformly polite.

In the United States, "the campaign is very effective in terms of comparison," said Janet L. Soderstrom, executive vice president of marketing for Visa International in San Francisco. In other cultures, blatant attacking "is not done," she said, more for cultural and image reasons than legal ones.

MasterCard, meanwhile, seeks ways in local idioms to hit on common themes that relate to its brand.

"We firmly believe that the level at which you build the brand is the country level," said David Bonalle, vice president of global brand development at MasterCard International, Purchase, N.Y., "because that's where the cultural norms exist."

The association has two advertising agencies bidding to take over its business.

Meanwhile, it has been using "the future of money" as a global signature slogan. The exact wording may differ from country to country, but the gist is intact, Mr. Bonalle said.

To help hone its message, MasterCard interviewed focus groups in several countries to gauge consumers' views of the future of the payment system.

Two themes emerged, Mr. Bonalle said: People were concerned about the security and trustworthiness of payment instruments and were also interested in innovation.

"We're basically leading consumers into territory that is unknown to them," Mr. Bonalle said. "People want to know that they can count on you. They're not that familiar with the Internet or chip card technology."

American Express, too, seeks out universal themes in its global campaigns. John Crewe, president of international consumer marketing and product development, said the New York-based company has two goals: "to build consistency across all markets and to take advantage of local language and customs to be relevant in a given market."

Mr. Crewe, who is based in London, gave as an example a revolving, low- interest credit card recently launched in Taiwan called the Blue Card.

"We're trying to appeal to a younger, local audience and less to the traveling executive," he said. So "we pitched our advertising to be more contemporary, near to an MTV-style approach."

A year ago, American Express introduced what it calls an umbrella advertising campaign that mentions multiple areas of expertise and has a familiar sound in all markets. The ads ran in Europe, North America, Latin America, and Asia, said Gail Wasserman, a spokeswoman.

While the television spots were substantially the same, they did contain some "locally relevant things," Ms. Wasserman said. "The one in the U.S. opens with phone poles, and in the U.K. they don't have telephone poles so there were scenes that were cut to make it relevant to the audience."

John Hayes, senior vice president of global advertising for American Express, said the focus is on sensitivity to local markets.

"We don't want the American Express brand to feel out of place or outside the culture in any country we advertise in," Mr. Hayes said. "We want everyone to feel the same about the American Express brand-how we get there varies from country to country, based on the products we offer, the language, and the culture."

Mr. Hayes said the United States is the "most competitive" market and offers "the most flexibility in terms of how much you can say about a competitor."

Another way card companies try to tailor their messages internationally is in what marketers refer to as "positioning"-how they communicate what makes a product valuable to the consumer.

In the United States, print and television campaigns for Visa's premium card focus on spending power: how much can be bought with Visa Gold and how widely it is accepted.

In Asia, ads for similar products emphasize prestige, said Ms. Soderstrom, the Visa marketing executive. The association wants Asians to associate the gold card with an upscale lifestyle.

After taking into account Asian attitudes toward success and stature, Visa devised a continent-specific tag line: "He who has the gold makes the rules."

The campaign features unusual visuals-a man who relaxes while his dog runs on a treadmill, a woman and her dog enjoying a spa treatment of blue facial masks and cucumber slices-to convey with humor how a Visa Gold cardholder can enjoy prosperity.

In Europe, by contrast, Visa is pushing for greater recognition of Electron, a debit product.

It is also using its sponsorship of the Olympics-which now come in two- year cycles because the winter and summer games are staggered-to boost its brand internationally. The company announced last month that its advertising agency, BBDO Worldwide, had executed the first international media buy for the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

In anticipation, Visa has become a sponsor of Cable News Network's "Olympic Update" program, which will cover sporting events leading up to the games.

The program will include 30-second Visa commercials that will be seen in all six Visa regions.

Jennifer Kingson Bloom contributed to this article.

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