From now until about March, Peggy Fleming will glide across the ice, football players will crash through defensive lines and a white water expedition guide will steer his rubber raft around menacing boulders to tell Americans about the joys of stamp collecting.
This year the U.S. Postal Service will spend between $1.5 and $2 million to sell its profitable sideline, which a postal service spokesman said grossed about $100 million and netted about $78 million last fiscal year.
The campaign fills in the spaces during prime time television and televised sports events and comes in glossy, four-color, full-page ads in major magazines. Since 1976, when the campaign began, those advertisements have been extremely effective in selling commemorative stamps to collectors, according to an official in the postal service's advertising services branch.
The marketing strategy is to sell stamp collecting as entertainment and as a hobby that can draw families together. But to get people's attention the Postal Service and Yound & Rubicam, the agency that produced the advertisements, have chosen persons selected to change stamp collecting's sterotyped image.
"George Wendt, white water expedition guide, has found something exciting to do on dry land. He collects stamps," reads the copy under a picture of a soggy, hirsute Wendt digging his pddle into the white water.
"'Collecting U.S. Commemoratives is a special kind of thrill,' says George. 'And it's one adventure I can share with my family.'"
"There's something called clutter," a profusion of advertisements all competing for viewer attention, according to the advertising official, who asked that his name not be used. The sporty, outdoorsy persons used in the advertising have helped the Postal Service stand out from the clutter, he said.
The Postal Service annually launches the campaign in the fall, with the advertisements running roughly from October to March. "We believe stamp collecting is best started and best promoted in the winter," said the advertising official.
The pitch is to affluent adults with disposable income to spend on a hobby such as stamp collecting. The advertisements appear in such magazines as the Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, Newsweek, Jet, Psychology Today, the New Yorker, Scientific American and Sports Illustrated.
The advertising strategy sells stamp collections as potential heirlooms, but doesn't present stamp collecting as an investment. Collectors say the educational value of the U.S. commemoratives, which are issued in large numbers, is a better reason for buying the stamps than the expectation that the stamps will sharply appeciate in value.
In the long run, commemorative stamps are probably most valuable to the postal service, which sells the stamps for their full value without having to deliver the services a customer's 15 cents normally buys, according to the postal officials.