Visa U.S.A. and MasterCard International each will debut two commercials during NBC's Super Bowl XXX broadcast Jan. 28, and none of the high-profile ads will be tied to professional football.
Visa, even though it is designated the National Football League's "official payment card," did not pay for advertising exclusivity, which left the door open for MasterCard.
San Francisco-based Visa said its 45-second spots will tout its Olympic sponsorship, with the summer games in Atlanta just six months away.
MasterCard said its 30-second spots will be in the vein of its ongoing "smart money" theme.
The card associations may be joined by American Express Co., which has kicked off commercial campaigns during previous Super Bowls. But it declined to say if it will do so this year.
American Express has been active in the football market, signing a multiyear sponsorship deal with one of this year's Super Bowl contenders, the Dallas Cowboys, to be the official charge card of Texas Stadium. The league has said that action violated the Visa sponsorship agreement.
In other sports tie-ins, Visa has been a worldwide Olympic sponsor since 1988 and signed a deal last year with thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown.
MasterCard has been a sponsor of World Cup soccer and professional golf. In December, it became the official card of the National Hockey League. And American Express jumped in last fall to become the official card for the National Basketball Association.
Advertising Age has reported that a 30-second Super Bowl spot costs $1.3 million. In breaking the news that MasterCard has landed on Visa's turf, the trade paper suggested it was a case of "ambush marketing."
However, Jan Soderstrom, senior vice president of advertising and promotions for Visa, did not see it that way. "We feel they're trying to catch up and we're so far ahead of them in sports marketing and events marketing, in general, that obviously they've caught on that this is a good thing to do."
She pointed out that a number of official NFL sponsors did not pay to get exclusivity, including Coca-Cola, which left the door open for Pepsi to advertise.
Ms. Soderstrom added, "By the time viewers watch the Super Bowl they should know already that Visa is the official NFL card" because of a series of Visa promotions.
"I don't think anyone could argue about wanting to be in the Super Bowl," said Michael O'Brien, a MasterCard spokesman. "The question is, do you want to pay the money?"