Plus System Inc., the global network of automated teller machines operated by Visa International, is taking advantage of the association's 1996 Olympic sponsorship early.

Rather than get lost in the shuffle of Olympic-related advertising next summer for the games in Atlanta, Plus is running print ads and sponsoring a contest this month.

Ron Reed, vice president and general manager of Plus, disclosed that the network had allocated $1 million for the four-week campaign.

The expenditure "is significant for us," he said. Other sponsors, including Visa, will be spending much more, Mr. Reed noted. "We didn't want to get washed out by the big blitz of ads next summer."

Industry watchers said Plus' early-start approach is a good one.

"If they don't have enough funds to sustain a program through the actual Olympic games next summer, it may well be smartest to do it now," said Jim Andrews, vice president of IEG Sponsorship Report, a Chicago newsletter.

"The Kodaks and Coca-Colas of the world have a lot of money and will be blanketing (advertising channels) with their promotions," Mr. Andrews added. "Not everyone can afford to compete with that."

The Plus campaign, which will run exclusively in USA Today, includes a week of teaser ads followed by three weeks of contest questions. The questions focus on former Olympic host cities and will rotate throughout the newspaper, in the Money, Lifestyle, Sports, and Travel sections.

Mr. Reed explained that USA Today was chosen because demographic research showed it to be the newspaper read by most international travelers to the United States.

The teaser ads ran last week, and the contest questions start this week.

Each person who calls in the day's correct answer is eligible for the grand-prize drawing: The opportunity to train with Olympic hopefuls at the Visa Gold Medal Athlete training camp this fall, and a four-day trip to the summer games.

A VIP package to the Olympics will also be given to a first-prize winner. Plus said it will select winners at random from all correct responses.

Unlike many promotions for the national and regional networks, this contest does not require consumers to use an ATM.

"We're interested in increasing our brand awareness," said Mr. Reed. "We think usage follows after that."

Mr. Reed said that close to 160 million cards issued to U.S. consumers carry the Plus mark. Internationally, he added, there are more than 530 million bank-issued cards that can access the Visa/Plus network.

"We believe Visa Plus is the preeminent international ATM mark. The Olympics, of course, are an international event," said Mr. Reed. "There's a very good fit."

To prepare Atlanta-area retailers for next summer's Olympics, Visa is running a promotional program called Visa Rewards for Gold Medal Achievement. Under the program, 5,000 merchants can become eligible for prizes for accepting and promoting Visa card payment.

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