Credit Companies Trade Charges : * Advertising: Visa and American Express clash over using the Olympics in their promotions.


The summer Olympic Games are four months away, but for the nation’s leading credit cards, the Olympic charge has begun.

Visa, which paid a staggering $20 million to become the official card of the Olympics, is airing commercials that boast, “the Olympics don’t take American Express.”

Meanwhile, American Express is fighting back with radio spots touting its card as the official card for tourism in Spain--site of the Summer Games. American Express got that slogan at a bargain price: it paid $3.3 million.

Companies try to link themselves to the Olympics because it gives consumers warm feelings about their products.


Performance Research of Newport, R.I., said more than six out of 10 people surveyed viewed Olympic sponsors as “friendly, innovative leaders.” But the American Express ads are getting the adrenaline flowing at Visa because they mention the Olympics--a right Visa paid for dearly.

The U.S. Olympic Committee, which sold Visa the sponsorship, isn’t too happy about the American Express ads, either.

USOC spokesman Mike Moran called the American Express ads “a clever ambush” concocted by “yuppies sitting up nights at ad agencies, trying to figure out how” to mention the Olympics without paying for it. Moran said the USOC’s lawyers were exploring possible legal action against American Express.

A spokeswoman at Ogilvy & Mather, the New York advertising agency that created the controversial radio ads, said: “I guess the Olympic Committee is entitled to its opinion.” But a spokesman for American Express defended the ad.


Spokesman Frank Vaccaro said American Express became Spain’s official card after joining with Iberia Airlines of Spain and the Spanish government agency Turespana last year in a three-year, $10-million tourism promotion.

“We saw 1992 as a tremendous year for tourism in Spain,” Vaccaro said, noting that the European country is hosting the World’s Fair as well as the Olympics.

What’s more, Vaccaro said, the American Express ads correct what the company considers a “misleading impression” left by Visa. One in four consumers who watch Visa commercials wrongly believe that the American Express card can’t be used anywhere near the Games, he said. Visa is the only card accepted at the Games themselves.

“Visa is using their Olympic sponsorship to bash American Express,” Vaccaro said.

Visa spokesman Brad Henning responded: “American Express is trying to counterfeit an Olympic sponsorship.”

This isn’t the first time Olympic-related advertising by American Express has aroused controversy. The company was fined $36,000 by a French court last month for distributing brochures that had a picture of the trademark Olympic rings. The fine came as the Winter Olympics got under way in the French Alps. And around the same time, the USOC accused American Express of using “ambush” advertising tactics in this country.

In its U.S. ads, American Express didn’t mention the Olympics directly. But it showed Alpine snow scenes and invited consumers to join “the winter fun and games.”

Who won the Winter Olympic charge-a-thon? According to Performance Research, 55% of people surveyed correctly identified Visa as an Olympic sponsor. But a significant 30% of those polled mistakenly picked American Express.


Guess the Sponsor

Performance Research of Newport, R.I., surveyed 350 adults before the Winter Olympics and after watching the Games a minimum of four hours. Although a majority correctly identified Visa as the official credit card, many also picked American Express, which ran snow scene ads.

Percent That Could Name Official Sponsor

Company Pre-Game Post-Game Visa 46% 55% American Express 24% 30% Mastercard 13% 9% Discover 5% 2%