In the midst of its spirited "smart money" advertising campaign, MasterCard International has changed tactics and taken a swipe at American Express.

MasterCard had for years been letting Visa take the bank card industry's digs against the charge card giant.

Even when Visa and American Express renewed their battle over the Optima True Grace credit card last month in a high-profile, point-counterpoint debate in major newspapers, MasterCard coyly said that to enter the fray would run counter to its goals.

"We are not looking to join the batfie they're waging in the newspapers." Joan Bogin, MasterCard's vice president of advertising and marketing, said at the time. "The MasterCard brand should not be attacking a specific product offering from American Express."

Within a few weeks, however, MasterCard seemed to do just that in a 30-second commercial called "Hammer."

The tongue-in-cheek spot begins with syrupy piano music playing as a woman dressed for horseback riding arranges flowers in the foyer of a luxury estate.

"You know American Express has this new card out," says the actor Rob Morrow, who does the voiceover on all MasterCard "smart money" spots. "And they act like as soon as you get one you'll spend your days arranging flowers some place grand where everything smells like potpottrri." "We do mention [American Express] but only because it's topical and it fits into our campaign;, said Daniel T. Murray, senior vice president and general manager of credit products at MasterCard in New York. American Express' True Grace product, however, was not specifically mentioned.

In September, American Express introduced the revolving product, and it has caused a major stir in the industry.

Optima True Grace offers at least a 25-day grace period on each card purchase, but cardholders can take as much as 40 days to pay before interest accrues.

The card comes with a 7.9% introductory rate for six months, then jumps to 8.75%. The $25 annum fee is waived the first year and can be avoided indefinitely if the card is used at least three times a year.

American Express, always quick to respond to Visa's attacks, had no comment about MasterCard.

"Hammer" uses the befGreand-after technique that characterized earlier "smart money" ads, Mr. Murray said.

One spot, "Supermarket," opened with scenes from an exotic island before making a dramatic switch to a grocery to demonstrate MasterCard's utility and acceptance.

The latest ad also quickly shifts gears, with driving music and a huge hammer that tears through the first grandiose scene as if it were a miniature movie set.

"I mean, come on," the voiceover intones. "A credit card's a tool. You pick a hammer based on how well it hanuners. You pick a credit card based on how useful it is."

As Mr. Morrow is narrating, the ad shows a family making home improvements and notes that MasterCard holders can buy groceries, sheet rock, trips to Sweden, "and pretty much anything else you need -- even a flower arrangement."

It points out that "you can use MasterCard at three times more places than American Express."

Visa has repeatedly emphasized the bank cards' acceptance advantage in its long running "everywhere you want to be" campaign, which features places that "don't take American Express."

"We're flexible enough that when a new event, new merchant categories, or in this case, new competitors come along" MasterCard can respond with advertising, Mr. Murray said.

Research shows that status no longer is what cardholders want, he said, but they do want to be able to use a card with more value.

Another acceptance ad, "Swiss Time" will join "Hammer" in a rotation this quarter. It highlights Gold MasterCard acceptance. A third ad will promote the MasterValues savings program for the holidays.

This year MasterCard will, spend about $85 million on advertising, Mr. Murray said, a 20% jump over 1993, "Our philosophy is to hold share."

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