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?

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