Dennis Shirley, who oversees advertising at First Interstate Bancorp, recently got a reminder that, in his field, what goes around really does come around.

Three years ago, Mr. Shirley saw a chance to exploit the turmoil created when rival BankAmerica Corp. acquired Security Pacific Corp.

Taking advantage of some postmerger indigestion -- customers complained of long waits in branches -- First Interstate lauched an advertising campaign. Using a drawing of people crammed into a sardine can, the ads asked: "Is All of America Banking in Your Branch?", a play on its rival's well-known "Banking on America" campaign. "We saw a gain in market share," Mr. Shirley said.

But last year, after Los Angeles-based First Interstate acquired an independent in San Diego, local banks took the hometown approach in promoting their merits. "I think their ads said something like, 'Don't let your money go up the Interstate,' " he chuckled, noting the play on the bank's name. Such sniping is likely to become commonplace as more superregional banks expand into new markets. But it is also becoming clear to experts that the strategy could backfire on local banks defending their turf.

Ad consultant Jim Turner said that history shows local-is-better campaigns entail banks' spending money defensively -- rather than on target products or groups of customers.

"If you do that," said Mr. Turner, president of Naperville, Ill.-based Etra Corp., "at some point, you're letting your competition write your marketing plan."

Kansas-based Fourth Financial Corp. has tripled its asset base during the past four years and will soon become the largest operator in heavily fragmented Oklahoma. When the bank enters a new market, it saturates the local media with name-brand advertising that executives claim is responsible for 95% retention of customers at acquired banks.

"It's always the local line," Brent Thompson, senior vice president for marketing at Fourth Financial, said of competitors' ads. "The key is to stay the course and not react to the competitors. If you deliver on your promises, people don't care where you're from."

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