Dean Witter, Discover & Co., staged an unusually splashy premier this week for the latest versions of its upscale Private Issue card.
Surrounded by cameras, reporters, and 1,000 guests Wednesday evening at New York's Guggenheim Museum, three artists better know for other talents - Ringo Starr, Jane Seymour, and Florence Griffith Joyner - unveiled some of their recent work.
Dean Witter commissioned the paintings - a vibrant, blue-toned contemporary by the musician, a floral watercolor by the actress, and a bold abstract by the Olympic gold medal winner. Private Issue cardholders will get a choice of which painting appears on their card.
They can also choose among three financial options: low rate, rebate, or cash-back bonus.
After the unveiling, the paintings were auctioned off to benefit the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Mr. Starr's went for $33,000, Ms. Seymour's for $25,000, and Ms. Joyner's for $4,000.
"We were looking at what to do next in the credit card business," said William L. Hodges, executive vice president of Discover Card Services Inc. "What occurred to us is that the category had become quite boring, so we thought it was time to bring some excitement back in, some romance, some sex appeal."
The flashy black-tie affair was the first of many Dean Witter plans as a part of a strategy it announced in April to attract credit card customers who don't pay their bills in full each month, Mr. Hodges said. The strategy involves a variety of products that will be accepted throughout the Novus system, Dean Witter's designation for the network of merchants and automated teller machines that take Discover.
"With Private Issue," Mr. Hodges said, "the artwork is nice, but there is real substance underneath, and that is we're giving people a choice of three." Consumers can pick one option one year, then select another option the next year.
For consumers who prefer a low interest rate with no reward features, one option is a card that offers prime plus 5.9%.
The second option provides an annual rebate equal to 5% of finance charges with a prime plus 8.9% interest rate.
Or consumers can select an annual bonus of up to 2% of purchases made during the year. The card carries a prime plus 8.9% rate.
With each option, Private Issue comes without an annual fee the first year. Thereafter, cardholders who chose the low rate or interest rebate option can have the $18 annual fee waived, if during the previous year they used the card six times or charged at least $1,000. Cardholders with the cash-back bonus option pay $18 after the first year.
"They are trimming the annual fee, trying to jazz it up," said Robert B. McKinley, president of RAM Research Corp., Frederick, Md. "It's been a sleeper product for them."
There are 42.7 million Discover cards in force, Mr. McKinley pointed out, which means there are plenty of cardholders who may want to upgrade to Private Issue.
Introduced in 1989 as a complement to the Discover card, the Private Issue card came with a $40 annual fee and a 1.5% rebate.
Dean Witter will kick off a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign for the new Private Issue featuring the former Beatle. Created by DDB Needham Chicago, the television spot uses the tag line: "It's a private issue. Painted by Ringo. Designed by you."
The New York-based financial services company has become title sponsor of the U.S. concert tour of Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band, which hits 40 cities through Sept. 3.
Dean Witter is not the first card company to enlist star power to market its products. Most recently, Blockbuster Entertainment Group and NationsBank Corp. kicked off an advertising campaign featuring supermodel Cindy Crawford. American Express has used a number of well-known figures, including comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
"It makes sense," Mr. McKinley said. "I don't know what else you could do. (Private Issue) is not a product in itself that's going to get a lot of people excited, no matter what they do with it."