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Visa USA last week broke the newest ads in a campaign that hasn't changed since yuppies carried only American Express and Visa was the card of choice for downmarket mallrats.

The new spots -- featuring a salsa dance school, a man and his sick dog, and a frustrated artist -- continue Visa's 15-year-old "Everywhere you want to be" campaign from BBDO Worldwide, New York.

The marketer credits the campaign for increasing Visa's share of U.S. dollar transactions. Visa now accounts for nearly 53% of the $1.16 trillion in annual credit-card transactions, according to industry newsletter The Nilson Report. Back in 1985, Visa accounted for 44% of total transactions.


"They've been successful at trying to create an image of prestige and exclusivity around Visa that puts it in the same ballpark as American Express," said Charles Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting.

Yet taking on American Express Co. wasn't Visa's original intent, executives said. The true target was its own downmarket image, and a desire to separate Visa from fellow traveler MasterCard International.

"American Express was a foil. Our real aim was MasterCard," said Elizabeth Silver, senior VP-advertising at Visa USA.

The campaign has helped shift the transaction balance between Visa and MasterCard from a nearly even split in 1985 to a 2-to-1 ratio in Visa's favor by 1998, according to Visa.

Nearly all U.S. credit-card issuers offer both cards with identical features, Ms. Silver said. And when BBDO created the campaign, consumers still saw both as downscale products to use for everyday purchases compared to American Express' glamorous, world-traveler image. (Ironically, American Express has shifted direction in recent years, positioning its card as ideal for use at grocery stores and gas stations.)


When BBDO ran focus groups to determine Visa's image with consumers, "we heard 'garden hose,' " said Charlie Miesmer, vice chairman and senior executive creative director at the agency. "They were the products women would use to go to the mall," Ms. Silver added.

The research also found that while American Express was the leader in image, consumers thought it wasn't widely accepted by merchants. From that, a positioning was born.

BBDO's creatives knew from the beginning the "Everywhere" idea was their strongest. They even saved it for last in their pitch to Visa, Mr. Miesmer said.

"Why do we have to glorify a garden hose when we can glorify the experiences [consumers] have in life, like finding this really nice Italian restaurant in an out-of-the-way place?" he said.

That restaurant was Rosalie's, a small eatery in Marblehead, Mass., picked to star in the first spot from a list of places that didn't take American Express.

Initially, merchants were wary about appearing in the ads, but as the campaign gained momentum, they started writing in, "sending their own scripts," said Rich Kronengold, exec VP-managing director at BBDO, who has been with the account since the pitch.


Some merchants have made it into spots, but others -- a taxidermist, a funeral parlor and a bowling alley, among them -- were just not telegenic enough. Critics of the program have also noted some merchants drop their association with AmEx just long enough to reap the benefits of free publicity and then return to a policy of accepting all cards.

Other merchants were found by accident. Ms. Silver found Performance Bicycle when she tried to buy a pair of biking socks with her American Express card. (She makes a small purchase every month to keep her account active, just to get the cardmember information, she said.)

The spots have been a boon for the retailers as well. A week after San Francisco's Fog City Diner showed up in a spot, tour buses began stopping in front of the restaurant.

The owner of Rosalie's became a local celebrity with her own local TV cooking show.

The choice of merchants has helped the campaign change with the times, Mr. Kronengold said. For example, one of the earliest spots featured a French chateau, a perfect '80s find but a conspicuous '90s extravagance.


Appropriately, the ad budget has grown from $20 million when the campaign was launched to $200 million today, and it has spawned extensions as BBDO adapted "Everywhere" for the launch of Visa Gold in 1994, the Visa Check Card in 1996 and most recently, Visa Platinum. Those launches strayed from the merchant focus, using humorous vignettes or celebrities to plug card features.

BBDO's team gives full credit to Visa for not switching direction despite new-product introductions and management turnover through the years. At last count, Mr. Kronengold said, the agency has outlived three company presidents and at

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