Lately, it seems like each time American Express touts its products in an advertisement, one of its competitors takes umbrage.

The latest salvo came from Diners Club, a Citicorp subsidiary that offers a product targeting travelers and competes with the American Express frequent traveler Membership Miles program.

On Nov. 18, American Express ran an ad in the Wall Street Journal that highlighted the benefits of Membership Miles.

The headline stated, "Only the American Express Card rewards you with such a choice of airlines to fly on, hotels to stay in, and experiences to enjoy."

Diners Club countered with its own ad in the Journal four days later.

The company also issued a statement to the press on Nov. 22, accusing American Express of writing a misleading headline.

"The copy implies that only American Express has a program that offers multiple airline and hotel partners.

The reality is that Diners Club beats American Express "by miles" in terms of airline partners (17 to 6) hotel partners (10 to 5), and with no minimum spend levels to begin earning points," said the statement.

American Express, which is accustomed to defending its products against Visa's barbs in the media, would not comment on Diners Club's remarks.

Nor would the New York-based financial services company respond to a recent MasterCard television ad that belittles a new American Express credit card called True Grace.

Visa launched its attack on the True Grace product in newspapers across the country in October.

American Express delivered a spirited response in those same newspapers shortly thereafter.

Regarding the latest eruption, a spokeswoman for American Express said simply, "Periodically this happens in our business. We read the Diners Club ad with great interest."

Diners Club's ad audaciously challenges consumers to call American Express' toll-free number, which the ad includes, and to ask comparative questions.

"It is unorthodox for Diners Club to ask consumers to call a competitor, but we believe the comparative facts between the products are so clear that it was a positive move," said chief executive Bob Rosseau. "We have been a quiet giant," added a spokesman, "but you will see a bolder stance by Diners Club."

Diners Club's aggressive ad provides a mock dialogue between American Express customer service representatives and inquiring consumers.

American Express said that the impetus for its Membership Miles ad campaign was to get the word out about five new hotel partners, added earlier this year, and to encourage customers to use their American Express cards during the holidays.

Currently, Membership Miles has 1.8 million enrollees in the United States, and American Express expects participation to reach 2 million by January.

By one estimate, there are about 1.3 million Diners Club customers in the United States, but not all of them are enrolled in the product's frequent traveler program, called Rewards.

Corporate cardholders are not automatically enrolled in Rewards, said a spokesman, but consumers who pay a standard $80 fee receive Rewards with their Diners Club card.

By comparison, American Express charges $25 for Membership Miles.

Diners Club is determined to convey the message that its product is superior. To that end, enhancements in 1995 and a more aggressive advertising position are planned.

"We are tired of being one of the best-kept secrets out there," said the Diners Club spokesman.

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