Credit card solicitations have been called many names by the people who receive them, and "junk mail" may be among the more complimentary.
Capital One Financial Corp. has struck a different chord with a tactic considered desperate by some but smart and innovative by others.
Over the past three years, the 10th-largest card issuer, known for sending large volumes of sales pitches through the postal system, has been advertising its secured credit cards on postcards featuring photos of missing children.
"It is a way for us to get the word out about our product and support a good cause," said Capital One spokeswoman Diana Sun.
While Ms. Sun declined to say how successful the occasional mailings have been, she added, "if it wasn't of some benefit, we wouldn't do it."
Other banks have also discovered the benefits of such advertising, said Vince Giuliano, vice president of Advo Inc. in Windsor, Conn., which distributes the postcards and handles the advertising end. "We are gaining more and more credit card companies," he said.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which supplies the photographs and lists a toll-free number to call, said the its postcards, addressed simply to "resident," reach 61 million households a week.
While some bankers viewed the Capital One strategy as an inexpensive way to reach potential customers in their homes, others found such blanket mailings odd for a business that spends millions of dollars to develop lists of people that fit very specific profiles.
"It's shotgun marketing and a sign of desperation," said one credit card banker who did not want to be identified.
But the market for secured cards - people who have been bankrupt or lack strong credit histories - poses unique challenges.
The names of people with blemished credit records are easy to come by, but finding secured-card prospects without credit histories is a major challenge, bankers say.
"It's interesting the lengths secured-card issuers are going to to get customers," said consumer advocate Ruth Susswein, executive director of Bankcard Holders of America.
Donald R. Jackson, chairman of Jackson Consulting Group in Middletown, Del., said secured card marketers "are looking in very different places for customers."
Ms. Sun of Capital One said, "Our secured card team is trying some different things besides our traditional marketing."
Earlier this week, secured-card specialist Key Federal Saving Bank, Owings Mills, Md., said it reduced its customer-acquisition costs by offering preapproved applications to people accepted for loans by subprime auto lender General Acceptance Corp.