"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 25 October 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Thinking of You



Underneath its ageless veils of

schmaltz and innuendo, deeper

still than its skin of affection

and its bones of servile favor,

one finds at the very heart of

the greeting card industry a

more temporal incentive:

Convenience. For those who care -

but not enough to actually

take the time to express an

original feeling - Hallmark and

over 1,500 Hallmark-wannabes are

there to play leaden-tongued

Cyrano at roughly $1.50 per

cloying verse or sub-Diceman



[Dole Clinton]

Thus, while the Postmaster

General sees email as a

disastrous revenue suck, savvy

greeting card publishers looking

for the next great value-add

take a much different view. With

the desktop immediacy and

instant delivery that email

brings to the greeting card

equation, the convenience factor

achieves a state of such

potentially lucrative tumescence

that even those publishers with

the longest, happiest, most

profitable marriages to pulp

have jumped into the digital

debauch to await the inevitable

money shot.



Given the prudish trepidation

with which so many other paper

tycoons entered this domain, the

ersatz sentimentalists' quick

infatuation with the medium may

seem somewhat surprising. But

greeting card impresarios have

always been a shrewd,

forward-thinking bunch. Indeed,

their industry is one of

capitalism's great triumphs: a

$7-billion-a-year business built

on the notion that saccharine

Santas, pastel elephants,

pun-prone bunnies, and fart

jokes that make even Buddy

Hackett seem sophisticated are

somehow necessary to confer the

proper significance to life's

most special days.


In spawning this great empire,

the industry has always utilized

the latest available

technologies. Where would it be

without the myriad devices the

Postal Service uses to sort,

route, and deliver millions of

pieces of mail each day? Without

the advances in printing press

technology that allow for

cheaper, smaller press runs?

Without the DTP hardware and

software that turns anyone with

an ability to draw overly cute

animals or overly hideous people

into a publisher? Without the

time-suck of high-tech careers

that keep people chained to

their cubicles instead of home

with their families? (Got a

stupid kid you hardly see who's

doing bad in school? There's a

greeting card for that very




With this legacy, it's easy to

see why a company like American

Greetings, the industry's

second-largest publisher, has so

wholeheartedly embraced

high-tech's latest gift to

post-necessity capitalism.

Ironically, the company's purest

nod to the digital realm, the

animated greeting card, is

probably its least compelling

online offering. With greeting

cards, brevity has always been

the salve of wit's absence - the

typical card may be stupid, but

at least it's short. Turn that

stale double entendre or turgid

sweet nothing into a

slow-playing animation, and the

awfulness only increases.



Sure, the web's about moving

cards, but not in the animation

sense. What it really does well

is deliver a better

point-of-sale. Lazy consumers in

search of treacly swag to

sufficiently demonstrate their


for some significant other no

longer have to venture into the

local mall's frighteningly

sparkly, overly perfumed card

shop. Candy, flowers, balloons,

paper cards to which you can add

a personal message - they're all

just a mouse-click away now. You

email your order to American

Greetings; it mails out a

real-world offering to the

person you specify. For

sitcom-style spouses who

habitually forget to commemorate

special occasions with the

obligatory sunset card, there's

even a reminder service. In

time, one imagines, card-picking

agents will do all your work for

you: You simply create a

personal database of who you

need to send cards to and when

you need to send them, and then

indicate the kind of cards each

person on your list likes. Write

a few personalized messages the

agent can use as a model, and

voila! You never have to worry

about greeting cards again.


Is it all perhaps a bit too



That's hard to say. On the one

hand, greeting cards undoubtedly

derive some of their value from

the personal gesture - if not

the penning of an actual

thought, then at least an actual

signature and the licking of a

stamp. On the other hand, maybe

they don't! Convenience is our

age's great goal - nobody's

making millions by inventing

products that make things harder

for people. Except Bill Gates

and Dr. Joel Kaplan, of course.


And speaking of making



Given the extent to which

advertising - or at least dreams

of advertising - pervade the

web, the greeting card

industry's arrival here may

finally open its eyes to this

huge revenue source it's been

overlooking for far too long

now. Think about it for a

moment; according to the

Greeting Card Association, 7.5

billion cards are exchanged each

year. 7.5 billion primary

impressions, and at least that

many more pass-alongs. That's a

medium in and of itself, and yet

it's totally unexploited by



[doe - nuts]

In addition, the greeting card is

probably the world's best medium

for relationship marketing. Your

product, placed on a greeting

card, gets a tacit endorsement

from the card's sender, who

invariably is a trusted

confidant of the card's

recipient: "It's our anniversary

and I love you - have a Coke!"

Is there a better way to

conflate the irrational emotions

that drive purchases with one's

products? Certain companies are

starting to understand this; go

to your local Tower Records and

you're likely to see a rack of

free postcards, sponsored by the

likes of Liz Claiborne and US

magazine. But why limit it to

postcards, when you could tap

into the emotional valence of

eight billion Happy Birthdays

and Merry Christmases?



And there's really no need to

give away such cards for free.

As any vessel of the zeitgeist

can tell you, people define

their lives now through the

products that surround them.

Greeting cards bearing the

images of their beloved

marketplace furnishings would

undoubtedly sell for a premium.

courtesy of St. Huck