Postal Service Tries HBO Tie-In

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

In its latest attempt to stem the decline in first-class mail, the U.S. Postal Service is collaborating with HBO to promote letter writing -- and a television miniseries about one of the most prolific letter writers in American history.

This month and next, about 3 billion pieces of mail will bear a special postmark with a quotation from John Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the second president of the United States, who famously exchanged more than 1,100 letters with his wife, Abigail.

"Let us dare to read, think, speak and write," reads the Adams quotation from 1765. The postmark, technically known as a "postal cancellation," also bears the address http://poweroftheletter.com, which directs readers to a Postal Service-owned Web site promoting next month's "John Adams," a seven-part HBO miniseries based on the biography by David McCullough, who relied heavily on Adams's rich correspondence.

The campaign includes signs and cardboard cutouts in thousands of post offices.

Some experts question whether the arrangement makes financial sense for the Postal Service, which relies on revenue from operations rather than taxpayer funding. HBO, which is not paying the Postal Service a marketing fee, appears to be receiving valuable advertising through a public agency without offering much in return, they said.

"What's next? Does the U.S. Air Force get to make a deal with McDonald's and we can put some golden arches on the sides of our F-16s?" asked Sam Ryan, a senior fellow at the conservative Lexington Institute who has called for privatizing the Postal Service.

Roland Rust, chairman of the department of marketing at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, said that HBO appears to have gotten the better end of the deal.

"That's advertising that's worth a tremendous amount of money," Rust said. "I don't see the benefit from the miniseries leading to more letter writing. . . . That's just not how people communicate anymore. They are looking at going back in time as a way to promote letter writing, but we don't live in the past. John Adams did, but we don't."

Postal Service spokeswoman Sue Brennan said the agency hopes to piggyback on HBO's marketing and strong brand name to raise awareness of the importance of letter writing, and to capitalize on a related greeting-card giveaway that will provide revenue to the Postal Service in the form of first-class postage. She said the agency is studying whether to charge for special postmarks and promotional messages on receipts in future campaigns.

Visitors to the Web site may order a greeting card bearing a quotation from Adams, which will be delivered with a stamped envelope so the user can personalize the card and mail it, all at no charge.

"The Postal Service is benefiting from this partnership by promoting the power of the written word -- the impact of personal correspondence -- trying a different approach in this day of instant messaging and e-mails to emphasize how much more powerful a hand-written message can be," Brennan said in an e-mail.

Zach Enterlin, vice president of marketing for HBO, declined to say how much money the company is putting into the partnership.

The Postal Service has engaged in similar marketing partnerships before, most recently with the producers of films such as "Shrek 2" and "Star Wars." It also has been active as a corporate sponsor, bankrolling, for example, the professional cycling team that starred Lance Armstrong.

Such activities have sometimes proved controversial. An inspector general's audit in 2003 found that the agency had not effectively managed its sponsorships and was unable to verify the revenue that it claimed from them. Postal managers disputed some of the findings as inaccurate.

Despite its marketing efforts, the Postal Service has experienced an accelerating decline in letters and other first-class mail, its most lucrative line of business, as Americans increasingly turn to the Internet and cellphones to stay connected and pay bills.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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