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If You’ve Got An Ounce Of Feeling, Hallmark Has A Ton Of Sentiment
How the colossus of the “social expression industry” always manages to say it better than you do
December 1982 | Volume 34, Issue 1
The creative department is where fundamental work of the greeting-card business is done. No one at Hallmark understands it better than Jeanette Lee, a figure nearly as legendary as J. C. Hall himself. Lee, a member of the board of directors and a corporate vice-president, has been with Hallmark for decades. A trim, soft-spoken woman with a firm air, she heads the design department, the collection of four hundred or so artists who draw the wreaths, Santas, what-have-you that the computer and the vapors of experience say are needed. She knows how to put together a successful model line. First, you assign a creative team: a designer, a product planner, and an editor-writer. Their job is to create something like what is now on a rolling card rack in Lee’s office, a Thanksgiving model line. She points out some of the various “captions,” or necessary categories. There must be “general wishes” like the “endearments,” the juvenile and humorous and religious and our-house-to-your-house cards. And there must be “direct sentiments,” addressed to uncles, brothers, sisters, in-laws, parents—the whole roster of relatives. Balance is all important. In the Thanksgiving line, for example, Lee says, “They must have a turkey at every price.” Thanksgiving is a conservative holiday, it is explained, and so children motifs belong in the line. Fitting this requirement are the “charmers,” big-eyed waifs drawn for years by Betsey Clark of Amarillo, Texas. Clark is a veteran free-lancer, one of the very few whose unsolicited submission years ago charmed its way into Lee’s lines. “We get over twenty thousand mail-ins a year,” she says, “and we look them all over, but we take less than one percent.”
The creative teams evaluate the pull of the twin appeals, design and sentiment. Each has a different role, it’s believed; the design makes you pick up the card, but the sentiment sells it. Another dictum is that the eye is fickle but the ear is not, meaning that the artwork must move with the times while the sentiments can stay relatively unchanged. Sentiments are recycled through time, and skillful editors can take a Christmas sentiment and tinker it into a Mother’s Day message. Currently there appears to be a trend toward less copy, except for days like Valentine’s when, Lee says, people “seem to want more expression.”
An executive explains: “We add the vapor of experience to the computer and make sure we have no holes in the line.”
Trend watching is a serious occupation at Hallmark. The corporate design division puts out Trends , a beige and blue newsletter that vibrates such intelligence as: “The search for self-fulfillment, self-enrichment, self-enhancement continues. ” Translated, this means more kittens than puppies should be on cards because self-f ulf illed single women find cats are easier pets to leave at home when they go out to work. Similarly, Lee says that “fewer cards today show Mommy and Daddy home together—they often aren’t.” Psychosociological currents, though, aren’t the newsletter’s staple. “Forecasts call for emphasis on the desert colors,” a recent number announced—“sand, brown, rust, and the sun colors, and the aquatics or ‘wind-surfing’ colors, in which blues dominate.” Such tips, like the fabric samples designers submit, often end up in the cards. Not long ago Lee received some smokelike poofs and strands from Paris, sweet nostalgic pastels and other bland colors that experts are pushing. They’ll go into the new lines next to reliable reds, blues, yellows, lavenders.
It’s in the planning rooms that the creative teams mix and match new colors, old colors, recycled sentiments, and still-vigorous messages. Solemn ponderings go on. This year unicorns could be big, like the recent “swine art” cards that Jeanette Lee finds “real cute and corny.” Unicorns and Miss Piggy and all the other designs stand in racks along the walls, while, with computer printouts at hand, the team makes its choices. Some are easy. Roses, for instance, belong in most lines because they connote remembrance, love, and taste. A few “concepts” (the indivisible combination of art and copy) are sure-fire and are always present in one or another line. One perennial is the floral card reading:
Not even the computer knows just how many cards this has sold, but the last estimate was more than twelve million . The author, a free-lancer, made hundreds of thousands of dollars—some say over a million—on this number. But that was back in the days when Hallmark paid free-lancers a royalty on each card. Today’s freelancers get a straight fee, normally one hundred to two hundred and fifty dollars for a drawing, and one hundred for a sentiment. The free-lancers work on a Darwinian margin: an artist can submit twenty-five cards and have perhaps two accepted, but only if another of Hallmark’s marketing tools—the consumer-choice “panel test”—shows those two have broad appeal. Focus-group interviews also probe a card’s potential, and the usual market research measurements are examined by the creative teams.