Grownups have resisted several serious attempts by card companies to introduce stored value products, so now some companies are trying a sillier approach.
Visa U.S.A. and two of its bank card issuers have introduced prepaid card products with promotional tie-ins to the movie "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," which is based on a Dr. Seuss book and stars Jim Carrey.
There are two separate card promotions tied to the hairy, green fellow who tries to spoil Christmas for the Whos of Who-ville.
Wells Fargo & Co. is marketing gift cards that can be loaded with up to $9,999 and feature an image of the Grinch's spindly hand holding a red gift-box.
Visa is doing a bigger promotion with Pointpathbank.com, the Internet-only bank subsidiary of Synovus Financial Corp., by dropping cards worth $20 and $100 - and two worth $25,000 - into random boxes of Rice Krispies, Frosted Flakes, and 10 other Kellogg's cereals.
The Grinch movie will be released Nov. 17 by Universal Studios, but Grinch cards have already invaded cereal boxes across the country.
It may seem a bit odd that a financial product meant to be used by adults is being marketed in ways that appeals to children - as well as to the many grownups who grew up with the Grinch book and television special. By teaming up with an icon of popular culture, card companies may be able to build mainstream enthusiasm for products that, for the most part, have drawn disinterested shrugs so far.
Randy Redmon, director of stored value products for Pointpathbank, of Columbus, Ga., said Visa is trying to pitch "not only a movie that they have some affiliation with, but also the stored value product itself." (Visa has made a marketing alliance with Universal Studios.)
The card industry has tried to propagate stored value products in several forms. Several banking companies, including First Union Corp. and Wachovia Corp., made an effort to introduce smart cards to consumers at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Citigroup and Chase Manhattan Corp. conducted a subsequent trial on New York's Upper West Side.
Consumers could load money on the card's chip through automated teller machines or similar devices and then spend it at retail stores. With those products, the money that was stored on the chip was not yet spent - consumers could return value from the card to their bank account if they wanted.
With gift cards, on the other hand - as with paper gift certificates - the purchaser has already spent the money that is "stored" on the card, which technically makes it a prepaid card. Gift cards, which have been introduced as magnetic stripe cards in the United States, have enjoyed some popularity but do not yet have widespread appeal.
Larry Park, president and chief executive officer of WildCard Systems, a software and e-payments company in Sunrise, Fla., which Visa has selected as a preferred processor for stored value payments systems, said banks have historically been skeptical about stored value products.
Mr. Park, whose company is responsible for the technology behind Wells Fargo's Grinch card and the Visa Buxx card for teenagers, said that a few years ago First USA withdrew a gift card program soon after initiating it. "I believe they were using the gift card as an acquisition tool, a gift card that would later turn into a credit card," he said. "This was not a very cost-effective acquisition tool."
At the time of First USA's failed program, "the benefits of the card were not very transparent," and many banks "were wondering if there was something wrong with these cards," Mr. Park said.
Wells Fargo is selling its prepaid Grinch card only to its customers. Whatever the card's appeal as a cute holiday present, it is more expensive than giving someone cash outright: Customers must pay a $4.99 fee up front for the card, which then can be loaded with as little as $20.
Recipients have one year to use the money stored on the card (or renew it for an additional year by calling a toll-free number). If they wait for more than seven months to spend it, Wells charges a monthly fee of $2.50.
In a press release, Carrie Brown, Wells Fargo's card services product manager, called the Grinch card "the largest stored value gift card offering ever" in the banking industry.
The hoopla that Visa and Synovus are trying to generate through their Grinch card giveaway is far broader.
In addition to the two $25,000 cards, Visa is giving away 500 cards worth $100 and 10,000 worth $20 in the cereal boxes, which bear the slogan "How the Grinch stole breakfast." The cards can be used to withdraw cash at ATMs on Visa's Plus network. The probability of winning, the cereal boxes warn, is 1 in 8,029,000.
Visa has also renamed and revamped its annual "magic moments" promotion, in which the card company randomly picks a second of every day in November and December and refunds transactions that were processed on its network during that second.
This year, the rules are a bit different - there will be 500 winners, and all Visa card transactions made during those two months will be eligible - and the promotion is called "Visa and the Grinch Give Back the Holidays."
Mr. Redmon said Pointpathbank's participation in the Grinch campaign came about when Visa approached Prepaid Technologies, a sales arm of Total System Services Inc., the card processor owned by Synovus.
Blair Carnahan, director of business development for Pointpath, said Synovus decided to funnel the Visa promotion to its Internet subsidiary rather than its brick-and-mortar banking operation because "We had all the pieces in place. We could bring up this promotion in a short amount of time."
Cheryl Long, the product marketing manager for Total System who worked on the Grinch campaign with Pointpath, said banks are warming up to stored value cards because of their versatility.
"This is a new medium for cards," she said. "Who would have ever thought that you would be putting a payment card in a box of cereal that five-year-olds would be enjoying?"
Frances Dale, president of Entandem, a marketing and financial services consulting firm in Sterling, Va., said prepaid cards have "great flexibility" and could serve as "a stepping-stone to chip."
Once people get used to using magnetic stripe cards as a stand-in for paper gift certificates and other forms of money, they will be ready to embrace plastic as a greater part of everyday life, Ms. Dale said. Smart cards have not found favor with Americans, "but it's almost like it's coming through the back door," she said. "A whole generation of kids are using cards, not using bills. I don't see that as a negative."