Visa U.S.A. is launching today an $8 million, month-long radio and television advertising campaign to promote Visa check cards.

The campaign, to reach 21 major cities, is the first major, mass-market advertising in Visa's history devoted to a product other than credit cards.

"Visa has basically been a credit card company," said Michael Beindorff, executive vice president of marketing and product management. "As we go forward, Visa's more interested in becoming a payment systems company in total. That encompasses more than credit."

Among the products Visa has developed, he pointed out, are off-line and on-line debit programs - known as Visa check and Interlink - as well as a stored value card and Travel Money, a card-based alternative to travelers checks.

"This is the first time we've really done this sort of major broadscale advertising campaign behind one of those (non-credit) initiatives," Mr. Beindorff said. "We believe the debit card is the next major step out there."

Banks have issued 25 million Visa check cards. The San Francisco-based association expects to approach 30 million by yearend, and has noted that annual check card growth has been at 50% or more for seven consecutive quarters.

The off-line debit product has grown substantially from the 7.6 million issued in 1990. That year they generated 113 million transactions and $7.5 billion in sales volume.

In 1994, 20.7 million cards were used in 415 million transactions totaling $19.8 billion in sales, Visa said.

Off-line and on-line debit cards, which total 55 million, account for 26% of Visa's U.S. card base. At the end of March, Visa said it had an 82.2% market share in the off-line category, where it competes against MasterCard International's MasterMoney.

"It's time for us to begin to do the job of mainstreaming this product in terms of consumers' awareness and usage, and advertising is the way to do it," Mr. Beindorff said.

In the 30-second television spot, created by BBDO in New York, two folksy characters, Earl and Ray, are sitting on a porch in front of a general store talking.

Holding a Visa check card, Ray says, "Look what my bank sent me."

Earl asks, "What?" and Ray hands him the card.

"It looks more like an ATM card with a Visa logo on it," Earl says.

Ray responds, "It says here it works like an ATM card, only even better," noting that he could get cash and make purchases wherever Visa is accepted.

Mr. Beindorff said the informative approach differs from other Visa ads but "the tone is clearly Visa."

Television and radio stations in cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Cincinnati, Miami, Minneapolis, and New York will carry the ads, reaching about 70% of the population, Mr. Beindorff said.

Visa will conduct tracking research to judge the campaign's effectiveness, he said. Funds have been allocated to continue the campaign in the association's next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Visa U.S.A. has budgeted $100 million for advertising this year and expects to spend more next.

In the past, Visa has educated consumers about debit through regional advertising and promotions and an educational campaign, "New Shape of Checking," which it started in 1993 in association with financial institutions and consumer groups.

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