At Credit Slips, Bob Lawless, a law professor at the University of Illinois, supplies a nice deconstruction of the "Life Takes Visa" ad campaign, the ubiquitous TV spots packed with shiny happy consumers whipping out their Visa debit cards to pay for, well, absolutely everything.
But don't you dare pay with cash! Cash gets in the way. Slows things down. Makes people scramble for change. Visa wants us to think, as Lawless notes, that cash is for losers.
But isn't cash also for people who might be striving for financial self-discipline? Couldn't cash be the tender of choice for the frugal avoider of finance charges and late fees? Lawless is annoyed -- when the credit card industry goes lobbying in Washington, it holds consumers responsible for all their excesses. But at the same time Visa is blaming you and me for being incurable spendthrifts who don't deserve any bankruptcy law protection, it is spending millions of dollars on advertising campaigns encouraging us to spend freely and without the least restraint.
Visa could defend itself from Lawless' critique by noting that there is a difference between debit cards and credit cards -- theoretically, using your debit card shouldn't be any different than using cash, at least insofar as the path to bankruptcy is paved. But one could also argue that acculturating consumers to using any kind of plastic in lieu of cash helps create a general atmosphere in which the act of purchasing something is too easy not to engage in.
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.