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Life Only Takes Visa, You Losers

posted by Bob Lawless

If you use cash, then you're a loser. At least that's the impression Visa creates in a recent series of television spots from it's "Life Takes Visa" campaign. The one that first caught my eye, "Morning in Manhattan" (view it here), features a number of scenes as Manhattan comes to life in the morning.

While Strauss's "Blue Danube" plays in the background, we see morning papers being delivered, a restaurateur hosing down the sidewalk in front of his business, a person hailing a cab, and eventually more and more persons making their way to their places of work. Interspersed are scenes of people using a Visa card to make small purchases--a taxi fare, a cup of coffee, a newspaper, a doughnut. But WAIT! Stop the music. Someone puts cash down on the counter. The cashier glowers. Who dares to commit this affront to the social order? The camera pans up and we see the offender. It's your average doughy, dumpy, middle-aged guy. The message is clear: only a schlub pays with cash.

There are two other ads in the series that play on similar sentiments (view them here). In "Food Court," everyone is paying with Visa for their $5.00 lunch except the obnoxious person talking on her cell phone while placing an order. Another ad, "When the Saints Go Marching In," shows fans of the New Orleans Saints football team using Visa cards to buy ice and get a haircut. These fans are happy, blue-collar citizens. Cut to a sporting goods store and stop the music! In this ad, the person wanting to use cash is a scrawny man wearing a pink shirt and a sweater draped around his shoulders and wanting to purchase a can of tennis balls. Tennis? A pink sweater? Goodness, what a loser. The man behind him steps up, ready to pay for his football presumably with a Visa card, and the music starts up again.

The goal of Visa's campaign, "Life Takes Visa," obviously is to increase usage of its card in small-value transactions. The little transactions of daily life are one of the last untapped frontiers for the debit and credit card market, and Visa certainly is entitled to grow its business and expand usage of its product. The ad campaign tells a story or, in academic-speak, a narrative to consumers that conveys a subtle but powerful message. Naturally, the ad campaign shows happy, smiling people taking advantage of Visa's convenience, but the ad aims to shape social norms. Those who pay with cash come across as social outcasts. The ads say "Pay with a Visa or be a loser: your choice."

Although I do not begrudge Visa from advertising to expand its business, I do begrudge it constructing one narrative for consumers and constructing a different narrative for lawmakers, regulators, and policymakers. In the policy arena, the narrative is about how consumers make bad decisions that leave them financially overextended. Nothing should be done for these consumers because they are nothing more than the victims of circumstances of their own making. None of us should be naive enough to assume that the consumer credit industry will voluntarily retreat from its aggressive marketing practices. The tobacco industry never stepped away from its marketing efforts to create the image of cigarette smoking as part of a socially desirable lifestyle. Nonetheless, intelligent, public-regarding policymakers should realize that the consumer credit industry has helped to create the free-wheeling, mindless use of credit cards that the industry so often decries.



I was okay when the campaign was just focusing on the checkwriters. The check card is so much faster. But except for clerks who can't do simple math, cash is faster.

It is sad that if you have a bill for $6 and you give the clerk a ten and a one, they get totally confused. No dear, you keep the ten and the one and give me a five in change. I know it's confusing but just type 11 into the magic box. The magic box will tell you what to do.

A little tip from my experience with Katrina, in a disaster, plastic cards are useless. Cashy money on the otherhand is King as it requires neither computer or phone line to work.

Bob, let me suggest that your critique and the tobacco analogy can be pushed a step further, as I'm exploring in a work in progress. Tobacco is an addictive product. Addicts do not make rational decisions. Credit cards users also do not make rational decisions; as Oren Bar-Gill's work has shown, for example, card users routinely overestimate the likelihood that they will pay off their bills on time and in full. We tend to carefully regulate products that impair cognition and decision-making (drugs, alcohol, tobacco, gambling), including their advertisement. Perhaps credit should be added to this list. (Admittedly, credit lies farther away on the addictive spectrum from a narcotic than gambling.) That is to say, it's fine for merchants to freely attempt to affect consumer behavior through advertising, but not when that advertising leads to use of an addictive product.

From the merchant's perspective, it is only very busy merchants that really benefit from plastic (particularly from contactless RFID cards). But consider McDonald's--at peak periods like lunch time, the speed of plastic is great. Otherwise, though, it is unnecessary and costly. And it imposes significant data security costs. As Robin Sidel noted in today's WSJ (B1), ID theft is not a problem with cash.

When I was working in fast food, paying with your _credit card_ was what would get you nasty looks from the employees, customers, and the manager. It takes about three seconds to receive someone's cash, punch in the amount, and deliver the change. With credit cards we had to swipe, turn the card around, swipe again, wait, print receipt, find a pen, and have the receipt signed. Such a customer took twice as long to serve as one paying cash.

I noticed in the ads many people were just waving their cards in front of the visa machine. Is this how new all new visa cards work? Is there any sort of identity verification involved?

Surely its not a good thing from the retailers' point of view either, since whenever people pay using a card (credit, charge or debit) the card provider takes a percentage of the transaction value to pay for the seller's use of the feature... quite often retailers will even give a discount on larger purchases made with cash for precisely that reason!

Credit abuse can be as much of an addiction for some people as alcohol and other drugs or gambling. It even has its own 12 Step fellowship based on Alcoholics Anonymous called, fittingly enough, Debtors Anonymous. I detest the Visa commercials as much as anyone and personally do not use credit cards. Public pressure and censure against this and other predatory lending practices could hopefully be effective but it's not yet worked very well against the alcohol industry. I heard a radio commercial last week for Busch Beer - as lame as these Visa commercials - wherein the announcer stated that if you don't have a guilty conscience on Monday, you either had a bad memory or no fun. Unfortunately, these people who make money off of the poor decisions of consumers aren't going to stop doing this anytime soon.

When I see those commercials, I see everyone moving along as another interchangable cog in a giant commerce machine, except for one brave non-cog. You could change the slogan to "Are you a good cog?"

Matt--many new credit cards (not just Visa) have radio frequency ID (RFID) chips in them. These contactless cards go under the names of PayWave (Visa), PayPass (MC), Blink (Chase's proprietary brand), ExpressPay (Amex). It's really no different than EZPass (many highway tolls) or SmartCard (DC Metro). RFID cards need merely be waved near an RFID reader (range can be calibrated to a variety of distances) for a transaction--no swipe is necessary.

For transactions under $25 (not pegged to inflation), MC/Visa have waived signature requirements, but merchants who do not obtain signatures will lose chargeback (refunds/disputed transaction) contests. So, if you contest a transaction made with a RFID card and no signature, you are likely to win, regardless of whether it was a real transaction. This means merchants lose both the cost of the transaction, and the interchange fee, and the chargeback fee. Ouch.

I totally agree. I am disgusted by those commercials not because of promoting credit usage, but because they try to portray people moving (and by extension, thinking) like robots as a good thing.

Thank you SO much for writing about this - I HATE THESE COMMERCIALS. I find them offensive to my very core. As though using cash is for the people who want to gum up the smooth dance that is everyone's day. Life isn't FAST ENOUGH ALREADY, it has to be faster! Faster to ring up debt, faster to be in bankrupcy, faster to borrow money from family to stay afloat. FASTER FASTER FASTER.

In my old, decrepit age of 33, I have already come to realize just how fast life moves. I was married at 21, a homeowner at 25, a mother at 26. My daughter will be a teenager before I turn around. I am terrified that I will die wondering where my life went. Thanks Visa, for making my life go by even faster.

Well, now, I was wondering about these annoying commercials re: what Stewart said. Why would businesses want everyone using credit cards, when it cuts into the margins the way it does? I like using debit cards, but for everyday stuff as portrayed in the Visa commercials - which I just can't stand - nothing beats cash.

Also for anonymity's sake, cash is great, too. If Visa and Mastercard aren't in bed with Homeland Security I'll eat my hat.

I think they should come out with a consumer warning commercial that shows those Visa swipers all happy during the day and then pan to them unable to sleep at night orsitting at their desk working over time into the wee hours of the night while the people who paid cash are sleeping peacefully in their beds. Just a thought a little counter culture reality check might do those card users good.

Yeah..I'm perfectly agree that if a person STILL uses cash to buy or pay something, then maybe they still not updated with the new trend.

Maybe it's just me, but the message I got from the ads was something else: if you are going to buy something anyway, use a Visa brand card (I'm not sure if it was a debit or credit card) instead of cash. Seems like an OK message to me. The message wasn't "Go out and borrower lots of money and buy useless stuff." There's enough of that from the banks and the government.

There is a difference between Visa/MC/Amex (transaction payment processing, via debit and credit) and banks (who want you to borrow as much as you can afford).

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