Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Rocky Mountain Why?

I changed jobs at the height of the Handful O’Landfill era. I moved out of journalism into something more lucrative.

I know, I know. “What could be more lucrative than journalism?” you beller. Well, the fact is, children and future J-school students, there are professions more lucrative than journalism, though I admit that once I get past “washroom attendant at Barstow Kum ‘n’ Go” my eyes glaze over and I lose count of just how many there are.

Anyway, just as the trading-card bubble was beginning to resemble Howie Mandel’s head I got married and joined a firm that consulted for trading-card manufacturers, miscellaneous licensors (which is how I came to have carnal knowledge of the Jim Thome Baseball Game) and licensees like the National Basketball Association.

Essentially, I went from being threatened with lawsuits by trading-card manufacturers for telling them what I thought of their products to being paid reasonable sums of money by trading-card manufacturers for telling them what I thought of their products.

America. What a country.

I have said this before, but at the height of the craziness we had scores of prospective Campfire Girl card manufacturers and History of Plumbing card manufacturers and Famous Dentists card manufacturers banging on our doors daily and bombarding us with offers to make hundreds (on the back end, usually) by helping them make millions.

Most we turned away with a smile and a friendly waffle sole in the tucchus. Coors we did not.

I don’t remember how we got associated with Coors. I’m guessing it was through the guy who put the lifesize cardboard cutouts of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (“Got my steaks. Got my ribs”) into liquor stores. (We didn’t know everybody in those days; just a representative cross-section.)

Somehow someone at Coors thought the company should capitalize on the trading-card boom, and someone who worked with Coors said, “You oughta get ahold of these guys in Wisconsin,” and before you knew it, Coors Cards were leaping a-glimmering out of the Golden Gang’s corporate womb.

These were not shabby cards by any measure. No, siree. The card art came out of Coors’ vast Archives Bunker. (With Coors, everything was in a bunker.) The Coors Design Bunker chipped in the design. Backs were written to the highest standards by a team of Professional Hobby Consultants writers – not me, thankfully – and writers from the Coors Creative Bunker. The chase program was solid. Pete Coors himself even signed a few, from the security of the Pete Coors Bunker. And the gold foil flowed like Rocky Mountain Kool-Aid.

Distribution was a cinch. After all, there are two types of companies whose survival depends on getting their product everywhere: breweries and tobacco companies. The wages of sin is death, but the marketing plan of sin is universal distribution.

There was only one thing Coors and us and everyone else involved with the project overlooked: Cards are for kids. Beer, even Coors, is not.

Coors Cards were barely into their first month of marketing when a righteous mom happened upon the cards at a Smokey Mountain Market or similar establishment and blew The Whistle Heard One-Third Of The Way ‘Round The World.

Now, Coors may have borrowed a page from the Christopher Buckley Thank You For Smoking School of Marketing and played along with Coors Cards as a subtle way of marketing its beer-flavored Rocky Mountain spring water to teens and tweens and pre-tweens. If that was Coors’ plan, its people hid it well. The genuine-seeming surprise leading to outrage leading to cessation of payment when the whistle blew was more than ample proof of that.

Beyond that, these were not kiddie cards. They had pictures of mountain streams, stainless-steel kettles, hop fields, bearded guys, and water towers. Yeah, there were a couple of cards of tank trucks, but no self-respecting kid was going to buy Coors Cards over Pacific Flash Cards on that basis. (Insert raised eyebrow here.)

All good intentions aside, the upshot was that Coors, upstanding bourgeois running dog that it was, acceded to the pressure and pulled the cards from shelves. It distributed a few sets internally, and sold cards in its gift shop, but the idea of mass-marketing Coors Cards went the way of prohibition.

But the funny thing was, Coors was less than a year away from not having to pull the product at all. Playboy cards came along later that year, mimicked Coors Cards' distribution, and created a brief bubble in the adult-card market large enough to cover Sally Rand's ... uh, apostrophe. But the calls for their removal from shelves, if they came at all, went unheeded, and Playboy cards lasted several series before being carried shoulder-high down the road to the landfill all card-runners come.

Many of the cards featured in "Handful O'Landfill" are like cars that rolled off the assembly line missing a part or two, like an engine, that most people would consider pretty vital to a car being a car and doing car stuff. Coors Cards had all the parts in the right place. Who'da figured that they'd hang a left out of the car lot and get broadsided?

Friday, April 22, 2011


While the actual Handful O’Landfill era was as ridiculous in its time-capsule way as a royal-wedding nail job or Cyndi Lauper, the post-Landfill era was a hoot and a half itsownself.

The Landfill-era hilarity ensued because in those days you could literally put macaroni and cheese on a trading card and it would sell. The post-Landfill hilarity was equal parts ignorance and desperation.

Did these people not see that Dinotopia cards died in one-one-millionth of the time it took to kill off the actual dinosaurs, or that the market for the Jim Thome Baseball Game extended from its epicenter in Cleveland at least as far as Euclid, or that Pagemaster movie cards were the worst marketing idea since they took the alcohol out of Geritol? And even if they did not see, could they not have used their own intuition to figure out that if a comic book sells at a rate of null, a set of trading cards based on the comic book will sell at a rate of null minus seven?

But the people who persisted in making trading cards in ignorance of this specific gravity really needed trading cards to work.

Well, of course they did. But eight-year-old boys around the world weren’t going to do a 180 with their purchasing habits just because the CEO of PeopleCards (an amazing product concept – think Facebook on cardboard) had based his plans for global domination around a phenomenon which hadn’t occurred in more than a decade.

It was fascinating to walk the aisles of Toy Fair in those transitional days and see who was relying on an archaic adult-to-child communication medium pushed through an outdated distribution model as their golden ticket to the big gated community on the hill.

Some of these products have been covered before, most notably America’s Most Wanted cards, which nobody wanted. PeopleCards we'll cover later. And then there were Stak-Its, which were one of the more fascinating efforts, especially if you happen to be a quadrilateral.

Stak-Its took one of the nice things about trading cards and attempted to build an entire product around that one characteristic. It was like reducing an AC/DC album to the lyrics, recited by James Earl Jones. Talk about your highways to hell.

Stak-Its did not take the best attribute of trading cards, which could arguably be the pictures on the front, the words on the back, the cartoons, the graphics, the gold foil, or the chase cards. Nope. Stak-Its focused on the fact that trading cards are great for building card forts.

It is true that trading cards make awesome forts. Among its many other charms, a 1965 Topps AFL Jim Perkins provides the foundation for the Buckingham Palace of card forts. I have a picture taken when I was quite wee and living in Alaska showing a massive fort comprised of 1966 Topps baseball cards. A whole lotta Hank Bauers went into that, let me tell you, and the only thing that brought it down was the existence of dust bunnies the size of wolverines inside its walls.

However, it needs to be pointed out that trading cards are not alone in possessing this attribute. Playing cards make great forts, and they go for less than a buck for 52. Index cards make great forts, and they’re even cheaper. Cut-up cereal boxes do the job for free. And undoubtedly there’s a free iPod app that lets you build virtual card houses without the muss, the fuss, the false starts, or the dust bunnies. (However, all your Hank Bauers get cheaper in the process.)

Still, none of these alternatives have what Stak-Its have, namely: plastic.

Card-house-building capability was not the prime focus of the brilliant card engineers at Topps, but Stak-Its employed a veritable Manhattan Project of card brains to create the most house-building-friendly cards possible without resorting to making them out of OSB and Tyvek. Where traditional cards were essentially two-dimensional, Stak-Its added a row of pegs along card edges. Where traditional cards were comprised out of a relatively primitive material – cardboard – Stak-Its were made out of space-age plastic.

The difference is staggering. Stak-Its make a fort that may not be as immovable as the pyramids but will give any Oklahoma double-wide a run for its money on the stability front.

The problem is that at three to the pack, it takes an awful lot of Stak-Its packs to make anything more assuming than a honeymoon A-frame for a couple of Polly Pockets.

Then there’s what actually is shown on the cards – not pictured on the cards but gouged into the plastic with a dull nail file -- which appears to be the result of Jim Davis being asked to draw “Garfield” with his feet.

The end result is collectible, I suppose, if you equate “collectible” with “scarce” and “scarce” with “nobody bought them in the first place because they’re so bloody daft.”

We will give Stak-Its credit for realizing that man does not live by pegged plastic trading cards alone. Packs contain stickers reproducing the card artwork – enabling us to see that Jim Davis drew these pictures with his left foot – as well as internet activities (don’t bother) and rules for games you can play with Stak-Its.

Here’s a for-instance: Throw Stak-Its towards a wall and try to get your Stak-It closest to the wall without it actually leaning against the wall. And remember, kids, “do not throw cards at or towards any otherperson.” Especially these cards. You actually can put an eye out with Stak-Its – which, considering the way they look, is not the worst outcome. In fact, Stak-Its may make you may want to double-up on the eye-out thing.

Stak-Its are not the worst trading-card idea ever. In Topps’ capable hands they could have been … mediocre, but only because making card forts out of trading cards is a grassroots, organic thing. You can’t market it into existence; the best you can do is throw a product out there with uses A, B, and C, and be ready to take advantage if someone discovers you can also do D with it.

That was Stak-Its’ fatal flaw. They skipped A, B, and C and went directly to D. And as every member of the target audience can tell you, D is for dog.