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Visa, MasterCard See Gold in Prepaid

The deli patrons catch tossed burgers and drinks without a second to spare, as they move to the music in quick procession to the register and pay for it all with their Visa (V) debit cards.

The music screeches to a halt, however, when one unenlightened customer stops to pay in cash. People in line behind him bump into each other, trays clatter to the floor, as the man sheepishly looks over his shoulder.

"Life takes faster money," the commercial's voiceover says. "Life takes Visa."

The ad, which first aired in late 2006, lays bare Visa's strategy -- one shared by rival MasterCard (MA) -- of capitalizing on consumers' increasing reliance on plastic to pay for everyday purchases, rather than simply big-ticket items. Now, the two companies are looking to prepaid cards as another potential growth area, as they attempt to continue strong growth inside the U.S. and -- more important -- globally.

"The big vision is that ... people talk about prepaid in the same way they talk about credit and debit," says Elizabeth Buse, Visa's global head of product, in an interview with "If we're talking a few years from now, my vision would be we're not talking about prepaid as an innovation, we're talking about prepaid as the third mainstream consumer product."

As the economy worsens, MasterCard and Visa have so far remained relatively unscathed. While financial stocks have tumbled from the ongoing credit crisis and housing downturn, Visa's stock is up 50% since its first day of public trading in late March and trades at nearly double the IPO price. Two years in as a public company, MasterCard's stock is up more than seven times its IPO price.

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