MasterCard International is targeting college students with a new advertising campaign detailing the pitfalls of misusing credit.

Card companies have been criticized for years by consumer groups for readily dispensing cards to credit-hungry college students who have little or no income.

MasterCard's new ads, which began appearing nationally this month on television and in magazines, are meant to counter that impression.

"It is critical that students-many of them who are using credit cards for the first time as part of their college experience-understand the importance of establishing wise spending habits from the start," said Richard Jones, a MasterCard vice president.

The new advertisements, created by the New York agency Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, began airing this month.

The 30-second television spots debuted during MTV's 1997 Video Music Awards Ceremony on September 4th.

Full page print ads appear in September issues of Details, Entertainment Weekly, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Mademoiselle, Rolling Stone, Spin, US, and Wired magazines.

MasterCard, of Purchase, N.Y., is not alone in its effort to fend off criticism of its student lending practices.

Two years ago it and Visa U.S.A. both developed programs to teach students how to handle credit responsibly. American Express launched a similar program last fall, aimed at college freshmen.

But the three companies' public service messages have done little to blunt the attacks.

"What the card companies are doing is grossly insufficient, and that is evident in the extent of credit card problems in the industry," said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of Washington-based Consumer Federation of America.

Indeed, the controversy has expanded to minors. Other consumer advocates say they have heard tales of children who have received pre-approved credit card offers in the mail.

MasterCard says it is trying to reach all age groups through its Youth Education Program, of which the new advertisements are a component. In June, MasterCard issued a free guidebook for parents, "Kids, Cash, Plastic, and You." The association describes the book as a tool for teaching children how to handle the proliferation of plastic in today's society.

But these moves did not receive high marks from consumer watchdogs.

Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer program director of U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington, called it "a step in the right direction" but called the marketing of credit cards "overly aggressive."

"Card issuers never tell you the downside until it's too late," he said.

Moreover, Mr. Mierzwinski said, card marketing is sugar-coated, with issuers giving out bags of gifts when consumers fill out applications.

MasterCard executives defend their efforts as sincere attempts to provide information to children, parents, and college students. Students, they said, were singled out because they are frequently first-time cardholders.

Furthermore, a MasterCard spokeswoman said it was primarily the job of the issuing bank, not the association, to offer information about credit terms to applicants.

The ads geared to students will refer viewers to a new Web site, www.creditalk.com, for extra credit management techniques.

MasterCard will also air financial tips twice daily throughout September and October on the College Television Network, a closed-circuit network that reaches 250 campuses.

In another initiative, MasterCard is sponsoring an $8,500 advertising contest for collegians: Students from 230 schools will be invited to create advertisements that highlight the proper use of credit. Entries will be judged in the spring by a panel of corporate and advertising agency executives.

Despite these programs, Mr. Brobeck remained skeptical, saying the bank card associations are willing to accept delinquencies if it means signing up new customers.

Mr. Brobeck said the solution to most credit problems involves creditors prudently allocating credit, as opposed to all consumers' limiting the amount of debt that they take on.

In a separate announcement this month, MasterCard selected McCann- Erickson Worldwide of New York as its new advertising agency of record.

After ending a five-year relationship with Ammirati Puris Lintas, MasterCard announced in March it had narrowed its search to six agencies. More recently, the list dwindled to two: McCann-Erickson and Messner Vetere.

MasterCard has struggled for years to counter the strength of Visa's "Everywhere You Want to be" signature campaign. Fresh advertisements designed by McCann-Erickson will debut in the fourth quarter of this year, but MasterCard officials decline to say if they will retain the "Smart Money" slogan the association has been using.

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