Free Movie Tickets Used to Push Prepaid Plastic

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The push is on: Financial institutions are doing their darnedest to get consumers into the habit of using reloadable prepaid cards—which can be used similarly to credit cards or standard debit cards tied to bank accounts, but which often come with fees and lack the protections offered by traditional cards. Walmart recently announced a promotion in which customers get a 10¢-per-gallon discount on gas by paying with a prepaid card, and now, MasterCard is waving free movie tickets to entice customers to sign up for prepaid cards.

Banks and other financial institutions have viewed prepaid debit cards as the great plastic hope for quite some time now. Around 30 million Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and it’s these people in particular who are being viewed as prime candidates for prepaid cards—an alternative banking product that, unlike a standard debit card, doesn’t require a bank account, and unlike a credit card, can’t get the user in debt. Also, no credit check is required.

Until recently, prepaid debit cards were probably best known for their exorbitant set of fees, with the ludicrous Kardashian Kard as exhibit A. That card (or “kard”), endorsed by the reality show sisters, involved initial fees of $60 to $100 simply to use the card, along with $10 card replacement fees, $8 monthly fees, $1 fees to add more money to the card, and so on. The Kard’s long since been killed off, but similar cards with less outrageous fees are still being sold.

Last month, American Express jumped into the prepaid card market, distancing itself from the pack because its cards have fewer (but still a few) fees compared to the competition.

(MORE: The Coming Wave of Non-Credit Cards)

Now, MasterCard is eagerly trying to draw new customers to its prepaid offering. In coordination with partner Western Union, the promotion gives a pair of movie tickets to the first 16,000 consumers signing up for one of its prepaid cards. The tickets can be used only at participating theaters (AMC, Regal Entertainment, and Cinemark theaters are included), and additional surcharges may apply to IMAX and 3-D showings. The tickets hold a maximum value of $12 apiece, and must be used by November 30.

They’re also being promoted by a flashy new web video ad campaign:


But enough about the free movie. What about the cards themselves? The signup at Western Union heralds them as “prepaid cards with no hidden fees.”

Bankrate’s announcement of the movie ticket promotion offers a different take:

MasterCard Prepaid cards also can be subject to a variety of fees that aren’t well-disclosed. Examples, according to a fee schedule on a WesternUnion website, include charges for balance inquiries, ATM withdrawals, inactivity and cash reloading.

Apparently, the word “hidden” has different meanings, depending on one’s perspective.

(MORE: Will Banks Target the Unbanked Next?)

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.