NEW YORK -- Hours before the torch officially opening the 1992 Winter Olympic Games was to be lit, two of the world's largest credit- card companies waged head-to-head TV commercial battle, charging 'ambush marketing' and misleading advertising.
For months, Visa International has been running TV spots advising American Express cardholders headed for the games at Albertville, France, to leave their cards home because 'the Olympics don't take American Express.'
Visa paid $20 million for the rights to call itself an official sponsor and is, in fact, the only credit card accepted at the Games' on- site ticket window.
But while American Express isn't accepted for tickets, it is still accepted at hotels, restaurants, car-rental agencies and other merchants -- a fact that an American Express Co. claims VISA is trying to obscure.
'Those ads are very clearly misleading,' charged Frank Vaccaro, the director of international public affairs for American Express' Travel Related Services division.
He cited a market study showing that one in four people who saw the VISA ad came away thinking the American Express card would not be accepted anywhere in the vicinity of the Games.
VISA's corporate communications manager, Brad Hennig, said the San Francisco-based bankcard giant stands by its ads, asserting that the International Olympic Committee and the three major U.S. TV networks had all approved them.
Hennig said the VISA ads 'state nothing more than the simple fact that the Olympic Games do not accept American Express. You can't use an American Express card to buy tickets at the Olympic window.' He said the campaign is an extension of a campaign VISA has been using since 1986 to convince American Express holders they would be better off carrying a VISA card.
American Express was outraged at VISA's ads and the impression they left. So it fired back a media barrage of its own, with an ad campaign reassuring cardholders who go to the French Alps 'for winter fun and games' that not only would their cards be accepted at many locations, but that the American Express services offered there are far superior to those being offered by an unidentified 'bank card.'
American Express ran TV and print ads last Sunday and said it plans to run the TV spots on all three networks during the Games, with some to air during the Olympic telecast itself on CBS.
That drew fire from a member of the IOC, Richard W. Pound, of Montreal. He said the American Express ads were intended to 'ambush' and undercut Games sponsor VISA and to imply that American Express, not VISA, was the official credit card of the Games.
Pound was quoted in news reports as having said the IOC would take legal action against American Express to stop it from airing its spots.
American Express denied it is 'ambush marketing' its rival and in a letter to Pound demanded to know why the IOC allows VISA to use the institution of the Olympics to trash a competitor -- something it said no other corporate sponsor was doing.
In a statement, American Express said it 'would welcome a lawsuit' to give it a forum to debate 'VISA's misleading advertising campaign.'
Gary Levin, a reporter for Advertising Age, a media industry trade weekly, said the IOC might be hard-presssed to prove its point in a lawsuit.
'Enforcement can be tricky. American Express' TV commercials don't actually mention the Olympics, or use the five-ring Olympic logo. Legally, that protects them from a challenge on those grounds.'
He defined 'ambush marketing' as 'an activity that creates an impression or says a company is an official Olympic sponsor when it is not, or tries to ambush a legitmate sponsor by pretending or suggesting that.'
Both the VISA and American Express ads are carefully worded. VISA can deny it said ever said American Express cards are not accepted anywhere else in the Alps besides the Games themselves. American Express can claim, equally truthfully, it never mentioned VISA or claimed to be an official sponsor.
Levin indicated both companies benefit from whatever inferences viewers may draw. He said the card companies 'claim the consumers listen more carefully than they really do.'