Many folks rely on cards to do their talking

Sunday, December 21, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:10 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

Rhiana Scibilia is digging for the right words.

“Sometimes I get frustrated, and I’m just like, ‘Never mind, I’m not gonna pick out a card’ because there’s not one that I think really describes how I’m feeling or how I want something to be said,” Scibilia said while searching the Nifong Boulevard Hallmark store for a Christmas card for her boyfriend. “But most of the time I do find one that’s pretty dead on.”

Her card — when and if she finds it — will join about 2 billion other Christmas cards sent by Americans this year, contributing to more than $7.5 billion in expected annual retail sales for the greeting card industry.

Spreading holiday cheer by post is an American tradition that has withstood the tests of time and technology. But it might be failing the communication quality test as some critics question the wisdom of letting cards do all the talking.

Brad Prager, an MU assistant professor who studies popular culture, thinks greeting cards are a shortcut to real communication because they “allow emotions to be handled by an intermediary.” Prager thinks cards allow consumers to avoid genuinely examining their emotions.

“If you let a cliche or some generally accepted notion express your feelings, in a way you don’t have to count on yourself to come up with a personal thought, or you don’t have to count on yourself to examine your personal feelings,” he says. “It’s strange how pervasive that is. We all accept that people don’t open up, even on birthdays, let alone funerals or Valentine’s Day, times when you should be able to express your feelings.”

“We’ve allowed an industry to take that over for us.”

Of course, no one is forcing Americans to buy the cards. David Harrison, a former Hallmark editor who now writes books for children and educators, shares a common saying in the industry: The design of the card gets a consumer to pick it up, but the sentiment gets them to buy.

“If the sentiment doesn’t fit, they’re not going to buy it.”

To facilitate that fit, many greeting card companies employ “trend watchers” and demographic researchers who help ensure card consumers find exactly what they want, sometimes long before they even know they want it.

“Whatever is of concern to people at any given time will be reflected in greeting cards,” says Hallmark spokeswoman Rachel Bolton. Emerging social issues or changes in attitude such as those in the aftermath of Sept. 11, or even subtle changes in language and slang often make their way into the company’s card lines. This holiday season, cards with pockets for cash have been joined by those with slots for credit card-shaped gift cards.

Marita Wesely-Clough, the resident trend expert at Hallmark Cards Inc., pokes around in all sorts of places looking for the next new idea, color or design — the newest books on social change, television shows, even your dinner plate.

One of the emerging trends Wesely-Clough sees is Americans’ desire to “make it easy.” She sees time-starved consumers looking for help in areas such as creating a nice holiday environment at home, setting a nice table or writing the perfect condolence card.

“A lot of these things that were just part of our upbringing, you know, maybe in the ’50s, have kind of gone by the wayside. So if there are guideposts for folks, they really appreciate it,” she says.

She thinks greeting cards can help.

“For those people who have the thought, but perhaps don’t know quite what they want to say or can’t put their fingers on the words immediately, there are cards that really bring those feelings or emotions to light for consumers.”

But why, with cell phones and e-mail adding nearly endless opportunities for more immediate communication, are Americans relying on cards?

“Our interpersonal communication patterns are changing,” says Kathy Merlock Jackson, a professor of communication at Virginia-Wesleyan who has studied the greeting card industry. While new technology makes communication easier and more frequent, people’s ability to express emotions in writing has deteriorated, even with the advent of e-mail, which Jackson says is often coded and detached.

“I don’t think that cards are necessarily the best way to stay in touch or express emotion, but they are one way, especially for people who don’t have the confidence or resources to do it in other ways.”

And using a ghostwriter is nothing new, Harrison points out.

“Years and years ago, most people couldn’t read or write, so they would go to a scribe and have them write what they wanted to say, but maybe didn’t know how,” he says. “Cards now are doing pretty much the same thing.”

But Prager worries that cards are doing more than simply supplying the words consumers can’t find themselves. Greeting cards could be shaping culture, he says, by telling consumers what the appropriate sentiments are.

Industry insiders disagree. They say cards, and the sentiments they express, simply reflect culture. After all, consumers won’t buy something they disagree with.

“It’s sensitive, in that, if Hallmark is too far ahead, it’s not a good fit, and if we’re behind the curve, obviously we missed there, too,” says Wesely-Clough.

“Trends don’t really begin and end like you turn a water faucet on and off,” she says.

Some trends build and build, but are not immediately accepted by the public. Veteran’s Day cards were tested unsuccessfully in the ’80s but succeeded when they were reintroduced after Sept. 11.

Divorce cards are a more striking example. They were introduced in 1973, when the divorce rate climbed over 50 percent.

“We had a whole line of divorce cards, and even though this was going on in society, people weren’t yet comfortable discussing it,” Wesely-Clough says. “We were totally before the curve. Today, of course, divorce cards are common.”

Other trends boil up with little warning, and greeting card companies must react increasingly quickly.

One Hallmark division produces “lightning” cards, so named because they must reach the market quickly to reference the latest crazes. These fads are usually very short-lived — remember Ricky Martin? — and are often popular only in a single market segment.

Even the color palettes used in card design can change quickly — while color cycles lasted from seven to 10 years in the past, they’ve now been compressed to one or two because of progress in technology and communication, Wesely-Clough says.

Even if consumers are looking — and paying — for the newest thing, is it too easy when consumers can buy a card online and, by typing a personal message and the recipient’s address into the required fields, have the card signed, printed and mailed by post without ever touching a pen or stamp?

In most cases, for the gesture to be well received, the recipient must feel it is genuine, says Jon Hess, an MU assistant professor of communications. Even so, cards may fill a niche that other forms of communication do not. “When people do get personal cards, they tend to be valued,” Jackson says. “Cards are also something that, given the occasion, they tend to keep. That’s the difference between cards and personal mail that you get, as opposed to e-mail — e-mail tends to get trashed.

“It just fits into a different category of our lives.”

Often cards can function as a supplement to other demonstrations of support, such as phone calls or face-to-face interactions.

“Sometimes you do both,” says Betty Tice, a Columbia resident who was shopping for a condolence card after a recent death. “It’s just another way of saying ‘I’m thinking of you and I care for you.’”

Some relationships could actually benefit from having time to digest the sentiment behind a card without personal interaction, Hess says.

“I suspect that could be particularly beneficial in situations where the relationship is strained or perhaps ambivalent. Then they don’t have to try to respond to that face-to-face.”

As Americans continue to deal with new — and often uncomfortable — situations, greeting cards will remain one avenue for expression.

“We really aren’t a nation that is good at expressing emotion,” Jackson says. “After 9/11 there was this huge void to be filled, but people didn’t know what to say. They wanted to say something, but they didn’t know what, and so they turned to cards to do that.”

“People are afraid to be too touchy-feely, but it’s still OK to send a card.”

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