Leading the charge

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Credit-card companies want as merry a Christmas as retailers do. Planned promotions include movie tie-ins, sweepstakes and special shopping opportunities to lure shoppers into using their plastic.

American Express-which recently launched a branding campaign from Ogilvy & Mather, New York-will roll out a holiday promotion Nov. 22 featuring online shopping exclusives for cardmembers. Every day through Dec. 20, it will offer one exclusive item specially priced via a Web site, mylifemycard.com/mywishlist. Items range from BWM Z4 roadsters for $5,000 to Panasonic video cameras for $150.

Visa USA recently launched a tie-in with the movie "National Treasure," which includes product placement in the movie, a sweepstakes that will pay off 25 cardholders' purchases for the year and an online instant-win game giving away vacations and Visa gift cards; Omnicom Group's BBDO, New York, handles the advertising. Rival Mastercard International's promotion features a sweepstakes giving away a trip anywhere for 20 people and 10 trips worth up to $40,000; it's backed by ads from Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson, New York.

The fourth quarter is key to credit-card companies, which reap a disproportionate amount of their transaction volume during the holiday season. "This is the time of year when most American families spend the most," said Susanne Lyons, Visa's chief marketing officer. Indeed, almost 30% of Visa USA's 2003 volume came during the fourth quarter.

And consumers will keep charging this year, in spite of any concerns about rising interest rates and the recent drop in mortgage refinancing, which had helped homeowners pay off credit-card debt and continue spending during the recession. Smith Barney retail analyst Steven Weiting noted credit delinquencies peaked a year ago and household debt has dropped in recent months.

Visa is covering its bases by promoting all its products-including Visa gift cards and debit cards-to reach even those customers concerned about credit-card debt. "We try to be agnostic about that," Ms. Lyons said. "We try to offer whatever vehicle is good for that customer."

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