Community bankers eager to calm customers' fears about the year-2000 problem are about to get some help.

A full-page advertisement in the front section of today's USA Today, bankrolled by the American Bankers Association, wishes readers a "Happy New Year 2000"-and assures them that their money will be safest in a bank.

The $53,000 ad is part of a campaign by the ABA and other trade groups to bolster the confidence of retail customers, some of whom have been led to believe that small banks are ill-prepared for the new century.

In January the Independent Bankers Association of America will issue media kits to each of its 5,400 members. Each kit will include camera-ready ad slicks and statement stuffers, a list of talking points for dealing with the media, a sample op-ed piece, and a slide presentation for use with groups. America's Community Bankers plans to offer a similar kit to its 1,300 member thrifts and banks.

John Hall, an ABA spokesman, said the USA Today ad is particularly important for small banks, many of which cannot afford their own. The ABA is encouraging state bankers associations to place the ad in local papers as well.

The placement of the full-page ad comes as small banks continue to fight the perception that they are less prepared than big ones.

Earlier this month Kiplinger's Personal Finance Adviser told subscribers that "if you're not sure that your bank will be ready in time, consider switching to one of the large banks, which have invested considerable resources to correct the problem."

The statement drew angry cries from the IBAA and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. A retraction was published in the Dec. 18 issue of The Kiplinger Washington Letter.

Meanwhile the ABA is taking its campaign several steps further. On Tuesday it offered television news stations nationwide a two-minute "video news release" featuring interviews with ABA executive vice president Donald G. Ogilvie and John Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year- 2000 Conversion.

In mid-December the ABA held focus groups in Evanston, Ill., and Towson, Md., to determine what bank customers fear most about 2000 and what messages they find most reassuring.

Overall, focus group members did not fear losing their money, said Mr. Hall, who observed the two focus group meetings in Evanston. Instead, they were worried about getting access to account information and cash, and about the accuracy of account records. Most of the participants said they planned to take out enough money to cover one to two weeks of non-housing- related expenses.

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