Making a fanciful turn in its sponsorship strategy, Visa U.S.A. begins a yearlong relationship with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus on Dec. 29.

Because of the sponsorship, which Ringling Brothers valued at $10 million, American Express cards will not be accepted for admission to the 124th edition of "The Greatest Show on Earth."

In the past year, Visa has aggressively pursued a number of events, such as the U.S. Open tennis tournament, the designate Visa as the preferred card while blocking out American Express. Industry of advertising dollars for such rights.

Not surprisingly, American Express Co. is not pleased with these deals and has been known to fight back.

|Trying to Create a Deception'

"They are trying to create a deception among consumers by picking high-profile merchants and advertising that they don't take American Express," said Thomas O. Ryder, president of American Express Establishment Services. "In fact, they paid the merchants not to take American Express."

Visa and American Express clashed recently over Visa's deal with the Telluride ski area in Colorado. In a settlement, Visa agreed to change its advertising to make clear that only the mountain - not the entire community - was party to the exclusive arrangement.

Visa plans to feature circus performers in a national TV commercial to air in February.

The 30-second spot will be filmed on location next month in Florida and is the latest in Visa's ongoing "It's everywhere you want to be" campaign, featuring merchants that do not take American Express.

|A Big National Message'

"It gives us the opportunity to do something that appeals to an entire family," said Visa U.S.A. senior vice president Jan Soderstrom. "It has a big national message with a lot of local appeal."

The circus will use a shortened version of the commmercial on a local level. "I think it's good for both of us," said Allen J. Bloom, executive vice president of Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows Inc. "The circujs is a high profile event and Visa has a high profile advertising campaign."

The agreement lasts through Dec. 31, 1994. The two touring Ringling Brothers circuses perform in 90 cities and attract more than 11 million people.

"Visa came to the firm looking to hook up with someone that had an all-American, apple pie image," said Robert Fleshner, president of Novus Group Inc., Washington, which coordinated the deal.

Also, Visa was looking for something to fill in the gap between its winter and summer Olympic sponsorships, he said.

The deal is similar to Visa's sponsorships of the traveling musical "A Chorus Line" and Paul McCartney's world concert tour in 1990.

American Express is not alone in its displeasure with the deal.

"In a business where joint [bank] members are looking for differentiatikon, I think Visa's doing way too much cloning," said James N. Desrosier, who headed MasterCard International's advertising until last week, when he moved over to its Maestro debit card affiliate.

"Barnum & Bailey is a Main Street event, which is more along the lines of what MasterCard wants to do," he said.

But Ms. Soderstrom said Visa's positioning "everywhere you want to be," has not changed. "You can use it at the circus next door, the supermarket or a chateau in France."

|A Good Strategy'

The circus conjures up images of family and family values, said Ronald T. Urquhart, first vice president of consumer credit at People's Bank, Bridgeport, Conn. "I think it's a good strategy, but it definitely spills over to where MasterCard is."

"I think it's an opportunity for Visa to get their brand out," said William J. Moore, president and chief executive officer of Sun Trust Bankcard in Orlando, Fla. "Certainly, every child in the world wants to go to the circus and they carry their parents with them. "

Ringling Brothers said its basic audience is parents aged 25 to 45, with children 12 and under. A secondary audience includes grandparents with grandchildren.

"I don't see this as a huge shift in Visa positioning," said Jim Andrews, vice president of IEG Sponsorship Report, a Chicago newsletter that tracks corporate sponsorships. "It may send a signal to MasterCard customers [saying], |We're not just an upscale card folr businessmen or young single people. We're for families too."

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