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On Friday, Visa Canada will reveal that it was behind the strange, pseudo-German smallenfreuden missives, in an attempt to build anticipation for a major new campaign. The company is pouring marketing dollars into an effort to convince consumers to use their credit cards for smaller purchases.

In the meticulous protocols of Wikipedia deletion, it fell under article seven – "no explanation of significance" – which could also describe the entire campaign, until now.

All week long, there have been billboards, online ads, a video running on YouTube and in pre-roll before other online content, all asking a mysterious question: "Do you Smallenfreuden?"

The completely made-up word and its unexplained meaning were hyped with an entry on Urban Dictionary, a Twitter account, and myriad fake websites for those inclined to Google. Those included a 7-step program, a dating service, and a Davos-style global summit, among others – and until it was deleted, a Wikipedia page.

On Friday, Visa Canada will reveal that it was behind the strange, pseudo-German missives, in an attempt to build anticipation for a major new campaign. The company is pouring marketing dollars into an effort to convince consumers to use their credit cards for smaller purchases.

"We're trying to make people think differently about their cards," said Brenda Woods, head of marketing at Visa Canada.

This is not simply an advertising one-off: getting people to use their cards more often is a major marketing goal for credit card companies, and a priority for Visa Inc. on a global scale. Those who have felt a stronger incentive to haul out the plastic after signing up for a travel rewards-linked card, for example, have experienced this firsthand. So have shoppers who are pleased by the speed of tap-to-pay technology at checkout, such as Visa's payWave or MasterCard's PayPass.

The marketing campaign has the potential to go straight to the credit card companies' bottom line: Visa's revenue comes mostly from fees paid by the banks who issue cards and is based partly on the number of transactions. Convincing consumers to pay with credit more frequently is key to Visa's growth.

The explanatory campaign launches Friday, with television ads running during the National Hockey League playoffs, and online ads.

The company is also taking advantage of its NHL sponsorship, integrating the campaign into playoff broadcasts. It will enter Visa users in a contest to win playoff tickets and tickets to next year's Winter Classic game every time they make a purchase under $100.

The company has signed deals with TSN and CBC to have hockey commentators talk about the "smallenfreuden play of the game" on air. Those post-game segments will celebrate not big goals or brutal hits, but two smaller plays that set up an important chain of events. Viewers will then be able to vote for their favourite of the two using a Facebook application, in an attempt to win prizes. (Before the campaign reveal, TSN anchors were as confused as anyone by the unexplained ads, wondering about the on-screen banners while they were on-air in one case, which the ad agency insisted was not part of the promotion.)

The heightened interest around the Stanley Cup run, and the "more casual" fans tuning in, make hockey the perfect vehicle for launching the campaign, Ms. Woods said.

But the setup for the campaign is something more commonly seen before another big sporting event: the Super Bowl. Teaser ads, with snippets of video – sometimes unbranded – designed to delight and cause speculation have long been a trend in the lead-up to the biggest day in American advertising every year.

This year, for example, Honda stoked conversation among Ferris Bueller fans on social media with a mystery video starring Matthew Broderick.

In 2012, Volkswagen released an utterly delightful online video of dogs (some in costume) barking the Star Wars theme, complete with a greyhound dressed as an AT-AT.

For brands, generating conversation on Twitter and Facebook has become increasingly important, and so the use of these teaser ads has spread in recent years, but is still usually limited to the time around the Super Bowl.

In Visa's case, the technique has helped the company to build up chatter around its campaign, and to convince non-marketers to help share it around the social Web, said Peter Ignazi, executive creative director at BBDO Proximity in Toronto. It has also raised some skepticism.

"A lot of people are saying it's a waste of marketing dollars. They're really concerned about our mystery client," he said. "People are saying this won't work, and at the same time they're using the smallenfreuden name, and helping it work. It's amazing."

Since the campaign began on Monday, the teaser video has been watched by more than 300,000 people on YouTube, and conversation has gradually picked up speed on Twitter.

"It comes from a desire to be sure the campaign is social to the core," Visa's Ms. Woods said. "We think it's really important to start a conversation."

The very goal of the campaign, however, is likely to keep another conversation going, as the merchants who process those more-frequent, and ever-smaller transactions by credit bemoan the shift in consumer behaviour.

The fees that grocery stores, taxi drivers and other merchants pay to financial institutions every time they accept a credit card, are higher than the fees for debit transactions or banking fees associated with large cash deposits, said David Wilkes, senior vice-president of the Retail Council of Canada.

"I see more and more people purchasing groceries, even one or two items, with credit card," Mr. Wilkes said.

"As you get into the whole ubiquitous nature of paying with credit, it's certainly increasing the cost of doing business for merchants."

However, he also said that the move toward a more cashless society – especially as mobile technology develops – is unlikely to ease.

And in convincing customers to start speaking the company's language, there is a chance that Visa's small campaign could grow bigger, and go beyond Canadian borders.

"It's getting a lot of interest from our global marketing team," Ms. Woods said.

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