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Credit card battle launched for 'upscale' clients

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Both MasterCard and Visa would like to line your pockets with gold, or at least a ''gold card,'' similar to the one American Express has offered to some customers since 1966.

The entrance of both bank credit card companies into what has been the exclusive domain of American Express, analysts believe, is sure to result in a marketing scramble to entice the economic top 10 percent of the population. The well-to-do people in this group are known in the business as ''upscale'' buyers.

The first MasterCard challenge to American Express has come from Chemical Bank, a New York bank known mainly as a local retail banker. Chemical Bank has decided to offer a golden MasterCard in a 12-state area in the northeast part of the country. According to Bill Primosch, vice-president at Chemical Bank, the bank has begun to mail 600,000 brochures and applications to potential customers ranging from Maine to Virginia and as far west as Indiana.

At least three other banks, Continental Illinois, in Chicago; Valley National Bank, in Arizona; and National Bank of Detroit will also begin marketing golden MasterCards soon.

Mr. Primosch says the main difference between his card and others is that ''the golden MasterCard is designed to give more financial flexibility than a normal travel and entertainment type of card.''

Banks issuing Visa cards will begin marketing their premium card on Feb. 1. In the meantime, it has begun to hold seminars for some of its 12,000 member banks, gauging interest.

Already, American Express, known for its canny marketing abilities, has begun a selective advertising campaign, telling what it hopes are ''upscale'' readers of the New York Times Magazine to ''speak softly and carry a big stick.'' An American Express spokeswoman, Nancy Muller, says, ''Based on our 22 years of experience and research, neither of the new gold cards just coming on the market is what our card members tell us they want.'' Furthermore, claims Ms. Muller, ''neither begins to offer the service we do.''

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