On Valentine’s Day, do we still need Hallmark?

Kristin Lenz/KRISTIN LENZ/THE WASHINGTON POST

The granddaddy of all love sentiments — the Hallmark Valentine’s Day card — will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. But in an era of social media, e-cards and text messages, do we still care enough to send the very best? And without Hallmark’s prepackaged greetings, how would we express our love for others?

All too many are ready to declare that a holiday standby for generations of Americans is showing its age. While Valentine’s Day may be cast as a “Hallmark holiday” — a manufactured love-fest in which the depth of your feelings for someone is measured by the corresponding dent in your wallet — it’s difficult to see how the company can exist in a world where not even “get well soon” cards can revive the printed word. Hallmark, based in Kansas City, Mo., had two major rounds of job cuts in 2009 — the same year it debuted job-loss cards , presumably to be bought by those still in the workforce.

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An estimated 160 million greeting cards will be purchased for Valentine’s Day this year, according to the Greeting Card Association. That may sound rosy, but the big-picture numbers are less than encouraging for the industry. For instance, sales of greeting cards at Christmas, the biggest holiday by sales volume, fell from 2.7 billion in 1995 to 1.5 billion in 2011.

Hallmark rival American Greetings has produced Anti-Valentine’s Day cards since 2007, hoping that snarky takes on singledom can boost its bottom line. That’s one tack that Hallmark would never take. Doing so would challenge the reason for its existence: sincerity.

Of course, Hallmark has tried to adapt. The company also makes fancy 3-D Valentine’s cards; if you visit Hallmark’s Web site, download a plug-in and hold your print card up to the computer (still with me?), you can enjoy a 3-D animation. Hallmark is kind of like a more earnest version of the late Phil Hartman’s Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer character on “Saturday Night Live” — “I’m just a simple cardmaker trying to get along in your crazy world.”

But technology has also been disruptive to the way Hallmark does business. In 2010, the company pulled a graduation card from the shelves after the Los Angeles NAACP suggested that a word in the talking card’s audio could be heard as racist. And last year, Hallmark encountered backlash from anti-immunization activists who lambasted the company for its free cards that have long been sent out to congratulate families on a baby’s birth and that include a detachable immunization record.

Hallmark hasn’t laid claim to our hearts in just one medium. The Hallmark Channel (in the news recently for canceling “The Martha Stewart Show”) has grown from 7 million subscribers when it launched in 2001 to 88 million today. It is where sitcoms such as “Cheers” and “Frasier” limp on through eternity in reruns. And don’t forget about the silver screen, where comedic actors from Steve Martin to Adam Sandler to Joseph Gordon-Levitt have been playing struggling greeting-card writers for the past three decades.

A world without Hallmark would leave a very real hole in towns across America. The company has more than 2,800 retail operations nationwide and sells cards at more than 40,000 locations. And not just a hole, but a loss of wholesomeness. Men have learned not to worry when they can’t find the words to express their feelings — they have plenty of prewritten options in the card aisle. Without that safety net, men might be forced to turn to simpler tokens, such as a “be mine” candy heart or a Facebook wall post for all to see.

The loss would be felt more severely in Hallmark’s home town, Kansas City. We’d be left with an 85-acre lot where Crown Center, a mixed-use retail development, currently sits. And no Crown Center means no LEGOLAND Discovery Center, which is coming in May. Think of the kids, people. And speaking of the kids, no Hallmark means no Crayola; the company acquired the crayon brand in 1984.

Hallmark has 3,700 employees in Kansas City, 700 of them in the creative fields of design, photography and writing. This is Santa’s Workshop, kicking out 18,000 new products annually — the pipeline that fuels garage sales and white elephant exchanges across the country. And whether it’s naivete or a vestigial remain of Midwestern kindness, the company is still defined, at least locally, by a belief that the world can be made better through a greeting card.

A card is not just a card, says former Hallmark writer Terry Smith.

“When you send a card, it communicates more than the sentiment. It says that you went to some effort and that your relationship matters because of that effort,” says Smith, now a managing partner with Smith Donovan Marketing & Communications.

Even if that effort is just licking a stamp and remembering to send an envelope two or three days in advance, that is a shift from the instantaneous feedback loop of 21st-century communications. The time involved in the act suggests that you broke away from all your other connections because of how much you value a connection with your Valentine. This wasn’t a haphazard gesture — it was real, genuine effort.

In a world fueled by snark, Hallmark is our shorthand for sincerity.

“The need to communicate deeply isn’t going away,” Smith says. Something will have to replace a greeting card’s ability to do that.

Without the crutch of a greeting card, we’d be forced to be more sincere in our lives. And that is #nothappening.

jonathan.bender@pitch.com

Jonathan Bender, the author of “LEGO: A Love Story,” is a features reporter at the Pitch, an alternative weekly newspaper in Kansas City, Mo.

 
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