Holograms, images created by lasers to give the illusion of three dimensions, have begun appearing on consumer products as varied as greeting cards, gloves, wine bottles and romance novels.
In fact, hologram producers predict that, within a few years, everything from perfume to toothpaste will carry some sort of holographic image on its label or packaging.
"Two years from now, maybe three, everywhere you look, you'll see holography where you now see photos," said Robert Charles, the executive vice president for marketing of American Bank Note Co., a major manufacturer of commercial holograms.
Invented in 1947 by Nobel Prize winner Dr. Dennis Gabor, holograms are essentially "laser-photographed" images, created by bouncing one laser beam off an object and projecting another onto a special photographic plate behind the object. When the film is developed and illuminated, a three-dimensional image appears and seems to float in space.
Thanks to an inexpensive embossing technique developed in 1980, holograms can be mass-produced by stamping a master surface relief onto thin sheets of foil. Held at just the right angle under certain light conditions, the resulting flat, shadowy image comes alive with color and depth.
"A hologram is a great eye-catcher," said Stephen McGrew, a pioneer in holography and the president of Light Impressions Inc., a company in California. "It has beautiful rainbow colors, it moves as a person's position changes and then there's the three-dimensionality of it."
While embossed holograms have become familiar to millions of credit-card carriers -- MasterCard and Visa put holograms on their cards in 1983 to thwart card counterfeiters -- their natural marketing appeal barely has been tapped.
Last fall, two relatively small companies experimented with innovative applications of the technology: Zebra Books, a paperback publisher, added a 1-by-1 1/2-inch holographic logo on the upper right hand corner of its of historical romance novels, and International Standard Imports Inc., a Connecticut wine-importing firm, featured a circular hologram about the size of a quarter on the label of its new line of sparkling blush wine from Italy, "Figlia de Liberta."
"It's made a tremendous difference in sales. People that normally wouldn't give the product a second glance are mesmerized by the label," said Anthony Lemme, the president of International Standard Imports. "The label jumps out and says, 'Hey, look at me.' I couldn't pay for the advertising to do what I think this does."
Zebra's chairman, Walter Zacharius, estimates that rack sales of the company's historical romances have almost doubled since the holographic logos were added last September. He is so pleased with the results that he plans to add a hologram on Zebra's line of horror fiction this summer.
"Paperbacks all begin to look alike after a while. We were looking for something that would stand out," Zacharius said. "These pop out at you as you walk by a stand."
Steamy titles like "Rapture's Tempest," "Texas Torment" or "Stolen Ecstasy" are enhanced by a shimmering logo, alternately flashing the words "A Zebra Romance" with the image of a couple embracing within the confines of a rainbow-colored heart on a latticed background. The horror logo will feature the face of a child with a page-boy haircut that, with a tilt of the wrist, becomes a human skull with glaring eyes.
Zebra and International Standard Imports are not the only or the first manufacturers to use holograms as marketing tools or promotional devices. According to an exhibit at the New York Museum of Holography, the Quaker Oats Co. enclosed holographic rings depicting "King Vitamin" inside 100,000 boxes of breakfast cereal in 1972.
In 1983, Hershey Foods Corp. added holographic stickers of film director Steven Spielberg's "ET -- the Extra Terrestrial" to its packages of the lovable creature's favorite snack, Reese's Pieces.
The cover of the March 1984 issue of National Geographic served as holography's grand introduction to the mass market. To illustrate a story on laser technology, the magazine used a spectacular hologram of an eagle, which looked so real it seemed ready to fly off the page.
"I'd say it was the first time that so many people became aware of the existence of this kind of technology," said Hans Wegner, the magazine's director of printing and production control, adding that the monthly has 10.8 million subscribers.
In November 1985, the magazine used the technology again, putting a holographic image of a 1.8-million-year-old skull on the cover.
Before the end of 1984, Hallmark produced some 500,000 holographic cards retailing at $3, and Warner Books used a hologram of a whimsical creature whose tail lashed from side to side on the cover of "The Skook" by JP Miller.
Since, holograms have appeared on a line of children's running shoes sold at Kinney Shoe Stores, on special Christmas and Valentine's Day cards made by American Greetings and on promotional displays for Revlon products.
The eye-catching attributes of holograms are not the only reason manufacturers like them. The images also are hard to duplicate.
American Bank Note Co. in New York has produced some 500 million holograms for Visa and MasterCard and is testing holographic authenticity labels for Prince tennis rackets. Without revealing details, company officials say they are working on development contracts for the U.S. government, possibly involving the production of money.
Other projects include tamper-proof seals for pharmaceutical firms and packaging to limit counterfeiting of automotive parts.
Mass-producing holograms is expensive. The cost of an embossed hologram averages between 2 to 3 cents per square inch, and the development of a master surface relief can run into the thousands of dollars.
"It boils down to whether the addition of a hologram can generate enough additional sales to justify the extra cost," said American Bank Note's marketing expert.
Technological developments are likely to keep improving the quality of holograms, and eventually might drive down their cost. Polaroid Corp., for example, recently introduced a film that produces holograms that are sharper and brighter and do not need shiny, reflective surfaces to be viewed effectively. They are two to four times more expensive than embossed images, however.
"The market will really be in attention-getting. That's what a hologram does best," said Polaroid's chief hologram researcher, Douglas Marks. "But the question is -- will it go through a gimmick phase and eventually become an accepted form of graphics? I think it will. It's just a matter of time."