IT was 1969. A man walked on the moon. The youth of America turned on, tuned in, and dropped out at Woodstock. The Mets won the World Series.

In the more sedate banking world that year was an equally momentous milestone: Master Charge's first national television advertisement.

In the 30-second spot, Doris, wearing a silly hat, sits by her bedroom window, waiting for "her guy," whose ladder knocked over her pocketbook, spilling out about 20 charge cards.

"All these?" he says in shock. "All we'll ever need is Master Charge. It's good more places than any other charge card."

"Like beauty parlors and jewelry stores?" she coos.

"Of course -- and just one bill at the end of the month," he gushes, adding, with some exasperation, "Doris, you've got to learn how to handle money!"

Then her father, opening the door and catching them in the act of eloping, says, "Good luck to you, fella."

"Now that you're making it," intones the voiceover, "manage it with Master Charge."

The commercial takes one back to a time of ambivalent and changing attitudes toward women's roles. But just as clear, when viewed 25 years later, is the real message Master Charge hoped to convey: That this new payment product was "good more places than any other charge card."

MasterCard today is singing the same song about acceptance, albeit to a vastly different beat. Dumb-sounding Doris has given way to "Smart Money." Even with the latest, cutting-edge, year-2000 look, produced for MasterCard's 1994 campaign by the Ammirati & Puris agency, there is the ever-crucial concept: "No card is more accepted on the planet."

MasterCard isn't alone in harping on acceptance. Since 1985, arch-rival Visa has practically rewritten the dictionary definition of acceptance with the "Everywhere You Want to Be" recurring theme. The consistency of that message, year after year, commercial after conunercial, had a big part in building Visa -- a name less than two decades in use -- into one of the strongest of all brand identities.

MasterCard's Smart Money campaign is only a year and a half old, but it builds on a "value posifioning" strategy dating back to the late 1980s, and it is showing some signs of success. Though they disagree on the extent, MasterCard and Visa both say Smart Money has narrowed the perceived gap between them.

The upshot is that two distinct bank card brands are facing off against each other -- a phenomenon that some bankers, who feared the worst from the move to card-issuing duality in the 1970s, thought might never happen.

In the early years, when BankAmericard was said to have technology leadership, Master Charge was seen as more advertising and marketing oriented, using slogans like "When You Carry Master Charge, You Carry Clout," and later, in tune with the Me Decade, "MasterCard and Me, We Can Do It All."

But Visa seemed to have the musical forte, In the first BankAmericard commercial in 1970, there were no spoken words. A symphony conductors baton waved as the orchestra sounded and the word "Bank" appeared. Then, the tubas boomed and an "A" appeared, followed by "Meri" and "Card."

At bottom, the competitors' ads were once quite similar, hammering the point that a single card could be used anywhere for anything, with the ability to spread payments or assist in budgeting.

"When any product is new you have to be more educational in nature than when it's already established," explains Joan Bogin, vice president for MasterCard advertising. "Since no one knew what a Master Charge was, we told them it's one card accepted wherever you need it."

But almost from the start, the two associations took different routes that were amazingly indicative of what they are doing and saying in 1994. BankAmericardflqisa tended to use glitz and beautiful scenes while tugging at emotions with music; MasterCard was more slice-of-real-life, portraying everyday uses of credit cards.

Once BankAmericard became Visa, it had an easier time promoting itself than MasterCard because "the name Visa means acceptance," says John H. Bennett, senior vice president of international marketing and communications. "It's the same in Swahili or Spanish. You never had to explain what a Visa was, just talk about where it was."

Acceptance was always BankAmericard's key point; the name change made it easier to communicate.

As the Visa name and duality changed the landscape, slowergrowing MasterCard moved in the early 1980s to "So Worldly, So Welcome." That flashiest of campaigns was "a function of the fact that our competitors were concentrating internationally," says Ms. Bogin.

Then followed a series of variations on the MasterCard name, like "Master the Possibilities" and "Master the Moment." Since 1987, the ads have centered on value, most recently with "Smart Money" in supermarkets, and the "Master Values" retail promotion.

The seminal event in Visa advertising occurred in 1984 when John Bennett came over from Menill Lynch & Co., where he marketed the Cash Management Account.

His first task was to hire an advertising agency. Until then, all Visa's commercials had been produced by an in-house shop -- the preference of CEO Dee Hock, who was nearing retirement.

Mr. Beunett's way was to go outside -- the chosen agency was BBDO, which created the highly successful Pepsi Challenge campaign.

"John Bennett is one of the best advertising people in the word," said Charles T. Russell, the Visa president who recruited him. "He came on one condition: that he got to set the timing of our advertising programs, which until then seemed to be changing all the time."

Visa's goals were to build its image, broaden card acceptance at places where people did not think of using it, and differentiate itself from MasterCard. BBDO said Visa could do all that and go one better by inviting comparisons with the American Express Card, which had the image Visa really coveted.

At first, Visa's gentlemanly leadership resisted taking potshots at American Express. Mr. Bennett prevailed with help from Wesley Tallman, then with Chase Manhattan Corp. and now president of Visa International's products and information group; Richard Braddock, then a top Citibank executive who served with Mr. Tallman on Visa's marketing advisory board; and Mr. Russell.

The first resulting commercial raised not a few eyebrows. It showed "Rosalie's," a seafood restaurant in Marblehead, Mass., and admonished listeners to "bring a big appetite and bring your Visa card. Because at Rosalie's they don't take no for an answer and they don't take American Express. Visa. It's everywhere you want to be."

Rosalie's "took us from zero to 60 in 30 seconds," Mr. Bennett says. Then came what he sees as icing on the cake: the worldwide Olympics sponsorship, which Visa has held since 1986, allowing it to run commericals about how American Express cards are not accepted at the games.

American Express, where Mr. Bennett once worked, "had put itself on a pedestal," he said. "And you know how the American public loves someone to come along and knock the guy off."

To the viewer, Visa created what Mr. Bennett calls "a twohorse race" with American Express, which "left MasterCard scrambling--and they were pretty spectacularly unsuccessful for seven or eight years."

During that scrambling stage, after the 1987 stock market crash, MasterCard research found people "oversold, skeptical, and looking at credit cards like cigarettes or one of the other vice categories," Ms. Bogin recalls.

Eschewhag the concept of prestige and pushing its also-stellar acceptance levels, "We were interested in value," says Peter Dimsey, MasterCard's U.S. president. "Not an outdated notion of prestige and going to glitzy places."

It is ironic that American Express became the catalyst for the forging of two strong brand images in the bank card industry. That's the fruit of competition, Mr. Bennett says. "One has to have something to work against. One does something outstanding, so the pressure is on the other to match it."

Now that MasterCard has come up with Smart Money, which Mr. Bennett finds praiseworthy, "we'll have to get even better."

Does that mean Visa is going to move away from its highly successful comparative advertising?

With American Express preparing to get into the card business more deeply with a series of revolving-credit products, Mr. Bennett asks rhetorically, "Do you think this would be the time for us to stop talking about them?"

Apparently not. But if MasterCard has preempted the value positioning that seems so in keeping with the zeitgeist, what are Visa and American Express to do? They are no doubt hard at work creating the latest variations on they themes.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.