It started two years ago when "big, humongous bank" billboards started popping up around Vancouver, British Columbia.

Then came pictures of dead dinosaurs in advertisements with headlines that read: "The big banks have had their day."

The ad campaign, sponsored by Richmond Savings Credit Union (Richmond is a suburb of Vancouver), reflected the uneasy interplay between banks and credit unions in Canada's West.

"Credit unions on the West Coast have been engaging in a Canadian sport - bank-bashing," said Joseph A. Barbera, a Bank of Montreal spokesman. "They have been quite active in cute kinds of advertising that promote this sort of bank-bashing."

All 100 credit unions in British Columbia like to highlight the ways they are different from the country's five giant banks, but few have tweaked the big boys quite so peskily as Richmond Savings.

"We're cheeky," said J. Kirk Lawrie, president of Canada's third- largest credit union. "We have a guerrilla-type approach."

Mr. Lawrie delights in describing the "big, humongous bank" campaign and in using it to make big bankers writhe.

"They love that," he said. "Especially when you put it on a bus stop outside one of their branches."

Bankers are somewhat dismissive of Richmond's jabs and those of other credit unions.

"They have launched quite an aggressive marketing program focusing on their service and community orientation," said Linda Thorstad, the Canadian Bankers Association's director for British Columbia and Alberta. "It's been an interesting campaign, and the banks have chosen not to aggressively counter it."

Mr. Lawrie said Richmond's campaign has won an award from the American Marketing Association. Perhaps more importantly, it has become the talk of the town.

"Those ads that say 'humongous banks' are tapping into a reservoir of resentment," said Suromitra Sanatani, director of provincial affairs for the British Columbia chapter of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

Canadians see banks as egregiously uncaring, Ms. Sanatani said. For instance, at the same time that a national freeze on service charges was lifted, enabling banks to raise their fees, the banks announced large profits along with the fee hikes.

"Just for public image purposes, it would have created some goodwill if they had said they were continuing to freeze their service charges," Ms. Sanatani said. "It would have been a little thing.

"I think the banks are trying to understand their clients better, but there's still a way to go."

Credit unions excel at taking gleeful advantage of such public relations blunders.

"When you have a Royal Bank, which has 2,500 branches or whatever, it's quite a lot of fun being a PT boat going up against a battleship," Mr. Lawrie said. "We credit unions try to be a series of PT boats."

The battleships can be formidable. Two weeks before announcing a new remote banking service known as "Mbanx," Bank of Montreal blitzed the country with teaser television commercials showing 300 children in a pastoral setting singing Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a' Changin'."

Follow-up publicity included five other television spots, plus four- page spreads in local newspapers.

"The advertising stakes out a clear positioning in the marketplace," said Jeff Chisholm, president of Mbanx.

Some credit unions have chosen to view their big brothers with a trifle more respect - while still tittering at their foibles.

"The Mbanx promotion is very visible," said Robert D. Quart, president and chief executive officer of Vancouver City Savings Credit Union. "They're spending a very considerable amount of money advertising in the newspapers every week."

"I mean, these people have huge resources, and they're not likely to roll over and let some little credit union from Vancouver take over the virtual banking field in this country."

VanCity said the recent launching of its remote bank (page 8A) would be accompanied by a relatively straightforward promotion: The bank will differentiate itself from larger entities but not so loudly as to rile them up.

Mr. Quart said: "I don't think it's a good strategy to get the elephant mad at you - it just doesn't make sense."

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