The one-upmanship between Visa U.S.A. and MasterCard International in debit cards has spilled over into the advertising realm.
Visa has long been touting the Visa check card on television-its three- year-old campaign recently won a prestigious advertising industry award-but MasterCard's first debit card commercial has just reached the airwaves.
The new spot-a 30-second advertisement called "Paint"-debuted this month during an episode of "Chicago Hope." The commercial is the latest in the "Priceless Moments" campaign introduced last year after MasterCard selected McCann-Erickson as its new agency of record.
In its latest spot, MasterCard emphasizes the speed of using a debit card, saying it offers the convenience of withdrawing from a checking account without the hassle of writing a check.
"One of the challenges was to make sure debit was communicated strongly and was not overwhelmed by the 'priceless' message," said Lawrence Flanagan, MasterCard's vice president of advertising for the U.S. region.
The advertisement depicts a hardware store where a man buying a $26 can of paint finds himself stuck behind someone using a check. The cashier must wait for a plodding manager named Al to approve the check.
Suddenly, another register opens, and the paint buyer rushes over and flashes his debit card. An on-screen legend reads: "Knowing you will never have to wait for Al-priceless."
Earlier MasterCard commercials have typically focused on the variety of purchases that could be made with the card brand, Mr. Flanagan said. By spotlighting the purchase of a single can of paint, this ad shows how the debit card functions well for small-ticket transactions, he said.
The commercial will run nationally for the next three months, in rotation with other "Priceless" ads.
MasterCard expects to introduce another debit spot by yearend.
"Paint"-the 13th spot in the "Priceless" series-reinforces the card company's decision to downplay the name MasterMoney. Instead, the commercial uses the term "debit MasterCard."
Mr. Flanagan said, "MasterMoney is the marketing program, but consumer research has found that consumers are increasingly using the word 'debit.'"
In 1994, separate research generated by both Visa and MasterCard found that people were turned off by the word "debit." But a MasterCard study this year found that people had grown comfortable with it, Mr. Flanagan said. When asked to describe the product, more people used the word "debit card" than "ATM card" or "check card," he said.
People "now understand the functionality of debit," Mr. Flanagan said.
Russ Schoper, president of Business Developments International based in Alpharetta, Ga., called the "Priceless" campaign "a powerful strategy" that may be "very effective. I think it will stack up well against Visa's commercials," he said.
Both Visa and MasterCard may ultimately cash in from the wider publicity being giving to debit cards. "One brand may not necessarily benefit over the other, because merchants accept both," Mr. Schoper said.
Meanwhile, Visa and its advertising agency, BBDO, continue to win accolades for their long-running series of check card commercials.
On June 3, at the annual Effie Awards-the Oscars of the advertising industry-Visa's "Works Like a Check" campaign took top honors in the financial services category.
The campaign included debit card plugs from Bob Dole, Shirley MacLaine, Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, and Daffy Duck.
In late May, Visa also won three Clio awards for individual check card spots.
Because MasterCard's "Priceless" campaign was introduced in October 1997, it was not eligible for any advertising honors.
As for next year, "We are excited about the Effie Awards, and we are hoping for a sweep," Mr. Flanagan said.