In the credit card business, this was the year of the feel-good ad.
Typifying the trend was MasterCard International's "Priceless" campaign, which earned accolades on and off Madison Avenue. Confirming that MasterCard had something special after years of misfires was the appearance of a spoof of its distinctive television spots on "Saturday Night Live."
The recent crop of card commercials offered both celebrity endorsements- favored by Visa U.S.A. for its check card and by American Express Co. in general-and evocative family moments.
Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. crossed from one side to the other as Discover card advertisements featuring celebrities were replaced by ones that milked viewers' emotions, using the tag line, "Discover the feeling again and again."
Another new theme was the Internet. Visa was particularly active in touting electronic commerce and the convenience and security of buying products on-line.
Most credit card marketing executives said MasterCard's strong showing was the big story of the year. Previously lacking both a consistent theme and a permanent advertising agency, MasterCard found both in McCann- Erickson and the "Priceless" series that began in October 1997.
One commercial recently getting a lot of airplay depicts the experience of children attending their first major league baseball game. After the costs of hot dogs and souvenirs are enumerated, a voice-over intones: "There are some things money can't buy-for everything else there's MasterCard."
MasterCard cited data from the research service Yankelovich Monitor, indicating a shift in consumer values toward families and personal satisfaction and away from materialism.
"There is a lot of skepticism that card companies just want people to spend more money," said Nicholas A. Utton, senior vice president of marketing at MasterCard in Purchase, N.Y. "Customers are replacing old status symbols with new ones."
With "Priceless," MasterCard has been trying to cut into Visa's market lead. Its California-based rival had 52.3% of U.S. transaction volume last year, according to the Nilson Report.
"In the past, there wasn't a strong or central theme to MasterCard's strategy," said William Keenan, president of Creative Solutions, a financial services advertising agency in Hockessin, Del. "The 'Priceless' position is certainly as aspirational as Visa's."
In the first six months of "Priceless," MasterCard said, its "share of wallet" increased 0.4 percentage point, to 36.9%.
"The shift is impressive because it was made on the demand side," Mr. Keenan said. "It can largely be attributed to MasterCard steadying its course."
MasterCard said Millward Brown International, a research firm in Naperville, Ill., that it hired to track consumer reaction to the campaign, found after six months that 70% of 1,300 people surveyed were aware of the MasterCard brand. Before the campaign, awareness had been 65%. Trust and other image attributes also improved.
A central aspect of the campaign is the integration of the whole MasterCard product line. Credit and debit cards, platinum cards, and the upscale World MasterCard all have their own "Priceless" commercials.
The ads have been translated into various languages as McCann-Erickson expanded its reach as the card association's sole agency worldwide.
"We wanted every product we have to go into the campaign," said Lawrence P. Flanagan, vice president of advertising at MasterCard. "Even our sports sponsorships are being integrated into the campaign; there are no separate commercials."
Similarly seeking improved definition and zest in its ads, Discover in September unveiled new productions by DDB Needham of Chicago-three 30- second television spots and a national print campaign.
In an attempt to highlight Discover's cash-back rebate feature, the ads depict people making everyday purchases and being transported into their own fantasies. The slogan at the end is, "Feel like you're in heaven now; get a cash-back bonus later."
Discover officials said they hoped appealing to viewers' emotions would help cut through the clutter of credit card advertising. Discover said it was too early to comment on its campaign's impact.
MasterCard came out with its first Internet ad during the last "Seinfeld" episode on television in May. It called attention to a marketing alliance with the Excite search engine.
In the virtual vein, Visa U.S.A. this month introduced a TV commercial featuring its partnership with eToys, the on-line toy retailer, highlighting the ease of on-line shopping and Visa's leadership in the electronic marketplace. In keeping with Visa's long-running message, eToys is a place that "does not accept American Express."
Visa is also coming out with a national print campaign featuring several of its e-commerce alliances, including sites such as Yahoo and Music Boulevard.
Long-running Visa and American Express campaigns also got high praise.
Visa's award-winning check card campaign, created by BBDO New York, continued its celebrity onslaught, most recently with supermodel Linda Evangelista.
American Express cashed in on the last season of prime-time "Seinfeld" shows with the star touting its card in humorous situations.
"American Express can get away with using strong celebrity endorsements because their brand in their niche market is so powerful," said Mr. Keenan. "It's not threatening to their brand to have a competing personality.
"That process might not have survived with MasterCard because they are brand-building right now," he said.
To be sure, MasterCard still has a long way to go to catch up to Visa.
"The ad campaign can't really turn share of market around," said Russ Schoper, president of Business Developments International in Alpharetta, Ga. "It's an image thing."
But he added, "They've hit a grand slam with this one. To see whether they'll win the game over time, we'll just have to wait."
MasterCard's campaign is not the only reason for its recent growth, but "we believe 'Priceless' has played a role in our marketing war chest," Mr. Utton said.
RIVERWOODS, Ill.-Discover Financial Services has introduced an Internet shopping service for people who use Discover cards.
The Discover ShopCenter, located on the credit card's home page, links Web surfers to on-line retailers that offer discounts to Discover customers. Buying items from these retailers lets Discover cardholders earn cash-back rewards.
Participating Internet merchants include F.A.O Schwarz, Eddie Bauer, the Sports Store, CBS SportsLine, Discover Brokerage Direct, and Hickory Farms.
The new service "provides our card members with a convenient way to obtain meaningful product discounts on-line from some of their favorite retailers," said Joe Bonefas, vice president of technology products, Discover Financial Services.
Discover surveyed customers this year and learned "that discounts are important to them," Mr. Bonefas said. "Discover ShopCenter responds to their requests and brings added value to our relationship with card members."