Looking to differentiate itself from the large regional banks that newly dominate its home market, Crestar Financial Corp. has launched a series of television and print ads.

In the commercials, employees of the Richmond, Va., banking company promise not to "act like a bank, talk like a bank," or ever "forget it's your money."

If employees fail to keep their promises, the ads say, the $24 billion- asset company will pay $50 or $75, no questions asked.

"Sears guarantees Craftsman tools because they have great faith that they are going to last," said Craig Kelly, Crestar's executive vice president of marketing. "This is our money-back guarantee."

Mr. Kelly would not reveal the cost of Crestar's yearlong campaign but did say it is "the largest combined effort in our history."

The television and print ads target consumers in Crestar's Virginia, Maryland, and District of Columbia markets. Launched late last year the campaign was prompted by a spate of mergers in the Middle Atlantic states, including the December entry of Wachovia Corp. into Virginia and First Union Corp.'s November acquisition of Richmond-based Signet Banking Corp.

"There's a lot of confusion among consumers over who's buying whom and who owns whom," said Mr. Kelly.

Donald Just, president of Just Partners, the Richmond advertising agency that created the print and television ads, called Crestar's effort "the frank campaign." Consumers are tired of cute illustrations and images of friendly bankers, he said. They would prefer that banks tell it straight.

"What's missing from most bank ads is common sense and frankness" said Mr. Just. "These ads say what's on consumers' minds, not bankers' minds."

For example, the headline of one print ad reads, "Do you enjoy dealing with banks? Or are you normal?" The text of another reads, "We aren't going to tell you our bank is a fun place to be. It's a bank. We know you don't want to spend all your time here-it's our job to make sure you don't have to."

Each of the company's 20 print ads-which are running in newspapers in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington-ends with the tag line, "We're a bank. Banks need customers."

The ads have won modest praise within the advertising community.

But some observers have questioned whether Crestar's approach is good for the banking industry when it is trying to shed its stodgy image.

Shortly after the campaign began, Virginia Dean, a spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association, sent a letter to Crestar expressing some concerns. In an interview, Ms. Dean said she "wanted to know the thinking that went into" creation of the ads.

The ABA is conducting its own image-enhancing campaign that it hopes will do for the industry what similar advertising has done for milk and plastics. A series of television spots promoting banking ran for a short time last fall, but the campaign has been shelved while the ABA tries to raise more money.

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