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Visa hopes ad change will charge sales

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KAI RYSSDAL: Most or maybe even all industries are feeling the effects of the recession. But credit card companies are caught on the horns of a particular dilemma. Not only do consumers have to spend for them to make money, but we have to use their cards to do it.

So, as Marketplace’s Rico Gagliano reports, the world’s biggest credit card issuer is changing its pitch.

RICO GAGLIANO: For the last several years, Visa’s ad slogan was “Life takes Visa.” In its commercials, the company often urged consumers to whip out their cards for big, once-in-a-lifetime purchases. Like going to the Olympics. Then, the recession happened. And what do we think of credit now?

MARISSA GLUCK: Credit has become a curse word.

That’s Marissa Gluck, a partner at consultants Radar Research.

GLUCK: So Visa needs to tread lightly in this era of economic austerity.

The first “light” step: a new worldwide ad campaign. The ads hitting U.S. TV on Wednesday feature trips to the local aquarium instead of, say, Greece. Antonio Lucio is Visa’s marketing chief.

ANTONIO LUCIO: It is all about everyday spending. We’re not asking consumers to spend more. We’re asking them to use Visa for their everyday needs and wants.

The ads also focus less on credit cards, and more on debit cards. Lucio says the point is that they’re easier and safer to use than cash or checks. But consultant Marissa Gluck says it’s also a strategy to bring in more money — just from stores instead of debt-wary consumers.

GLUCK: By using their debit card they’re using savings they already have, but Visa still gets to collect fees from merchants. In other words: People don’t go into debt, but Visa still makes money.

Gluck says Visa isn’t the only credit card company that may be trying to make money off fees instead of consumer debt. She says American Express is now retooling to focus on its original green charge card. The one with an annual fee, that has to be paid off in full every month.

In Los Angeles, I’m Rico Gagliano for Marketplace.

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