As banks tout the convenience of global automated teller machine networks, American Express Co. is fighting back with a publicity campaign for its travelers checks.
Travelers checks have been losing market share to credit cards and ATM withdrawals. Last year, American Express' travelers check volume shrank by $1 billion, to $25 billion.
This month, the New York company introduced several television commercials that warn about carrying cash and highlight the safety of travelers checks. The ads ask viewers whether they have "a backup plan" for their wallet when traveling.
The spots are "intended to remind travelers of common risks and then provide a solution," said Luis Del Rio, vice president of marketing for American Express Travelers Cheque Group. "Travelers checks are a very nice and very safe way to protect your vacation when away from home."
In a survey commissioned by American Express, 80% of 1,950 consumers called travelers checks a "very safe" way to pay while vacationing. That compared with 45% saying ATM cards were very safe, and 27% calling cash very safe.
But travelers checks are under siege. International networks like Cirrus and Plus have made ATMs more pervasive and accessible, and credit card acceptance among merchants keeps rising.
James L. Accomando, president of Accomando Consulting Inc., Fairfield, Conn., said travelers are "catching on" to the favorable exchange rates they can get when using credit cards instead of having dollars converted by a merchant or at a hotel desk. Travelers checks, which "used to be the primary mode of payment" by vacationers, are being relegated to "a backup," he said.
Since American Express does not want to undercut its own card products, it is using a strategy familiar to the bank card associations: attempting to grab market share from cash.
In one ad, a pickpocket describes how a nearby group of tourists gazing at a church facade provides easy prey.
"We call it muggable money," said Victoria Handwerk, a spokeswoman for American Express. "Once it's gone, it's gone for good."
Another ad features a broken ATM machine and a repairman who says he can get spare parts-in three days.
Mr. Accomando said that situation seemed slightly exaggerated. "ATMs will work," he said. ATMs abroad "are driven by the same systems that drive them in the United States."
Nevertheless, Mr. Del Rio said that if an ATM shuts down in a remote location travelers checks would come in handy. American Express recommends that consumers carry at least $300 worth.
"We know that travelers carry a bevy of payment options," Mr. Del Rio said. "Travelers checks play a key role with a traveler's vacation."