Wednesday, November 20, 2013

You Deserve A Grimace Today

I hate when I’m reminded of things I’d forgotten about the Handful O’Landfill era, because then I’m reminded of things I’d forgotten about the Handful O’Landfill era.

Some people join the French Foreign Legion to forget. Me, I went into dental insurance. But only because the 401(k) was better.

The story behind this case of institutional remembering is that my lovely wife needed file folders, so I emptied out some of my voluminous chronicles of the Decline and Fall of the Trading-Card Business, mostly the stuff dealing with Collect-A-Card and its various products.

Collect-A-Card is interesting. It may not get its own chapter in the Decline and Fall etc., but it certainly merits several healthy paragraphs.

The short history of Collect-A-Card is this: It had one huge hit with Coca-Cola cards, came close with a couple other properties and bombed with the rest, and the bosses got out while the getting was good.

Put another way, if Collect-A-Card was a Cy Young Award winner it would have been Doug Drabek.

Collect-A-Card was out of Greenville, S.C., and had a whole mess of sly-foxy good-ol’-boyness about it, most of it emanating from the company’s president, Neil Connor. Neil had a swell gold pinky ring, a Sam Snead golf swing, a gold chain around his neck he got from doubling down on par-threes, and a taste for sippin’ liquor.

It was fun to watch dealers and distributors, guys who thought they knew their way around a sheepskin deal (read: fleece), think they had had really put one over on the Collect-A-Card boys, only to come away with 40 cases of Dinotopia, 10 cases of Campbell’s Soup, five cases of Coca-Cola Polar Bears, a couple of cases of metal cards, 500,000 assorted POGs, and only one case of the Coke cards they’d come for.

Connor’s right-hand man, Nelson Wheeler, was particularly sharp. He had a voice that sounded like a blue-tick hound gargling with Red Man chewing tobacco and spitting Southern Comfort, but he was nobody’s fool. He wasn’t even nobody’s court-appointed legal counsel. He could go into a knife fight with a vegetable peeler and come away with an order for a dozen more knives. The reason Collect-A-Card was able to turn one so-so property (as cardable licenses go, Coca-Cola was no Looney Tunes or Disney) into a decade of prosperity was because Neil and Nelson did a mess of deals sweeter than South Carolina iced tea.

Collect-A-Card had the original Power Rangers license (Connor still swears he did a better job with the property than Upper Deck, and that statement gets truer as the years go by), and made Corvette sets, about a dozen different varieties of Coke sets (base, POGs, premium, superpremium, superultrapremium, metal, Polar Bears, and business class), and a set of Olympic logos in addition to the aforementioned Dinotopia and Campbell’s Soup set.

And then, in a moment of weakness, Collect-A-Card did the McDonaldland 500 set.

I had remembered just about everything about Collect-A-Card except the McDonaldland 500. CAC called these “fantasy cards,” which is about right, since calling them collector cards was absolutely a flight of fancy.

Recalling now the circumstances around their creation, Connor wanted to do for McDonald’s what he had done for Coke – create a set showing old ads and memorabilia, maybe do some burger-shaped POGs, follow it up with some metal cards, and include a Fisher-Price Hamburglar in every pack.

McDonald’s either wasn’t buying the whole nostalgia trip or wanted Collect-A-Card to show its good faith, so it said, “Do a McDonaldland 500 set.”

At this point, anyone with lesser confidence in their ability to sell Bears jerseys to Packer fans would have bailed – but not Neil Connor. And this was one case where the good ol’ boy got his, because the McDonaldland 500 was a dogburger.

I’ll quote from the product description in all its grammatically incorrect glory and let you make your own conclusions: “Join the fun in this premier collection of ‘The Adventures of Ronald McDonald®’ characters in the most exciting stock car race of the year … ‘The McDonaldland® 500’!!! Hamburglar will be using every trick in the book to capture the beautiful winner’s trophy which is filled with the one thing he simply can’t resist … hamburgers! Ronald McDonald will be driving the ‘Ronald Rocket’ and pulling out the stops in an effort to overcome Hamburglars mischievous plans. Will Ronald be able to stop him? Grab a few packs and follow this exciting action adventure!”

I’m pretty sure I didn’t write that. I would have put four exclamation points after “McDonaldland® 500.”

Breaking it down as a marketer would (and I do that on occasion), the McDonaldland 500 set offered the Ronald McDonald characters[1], which taken as a group had less marketing oomph than the cast of Moesha, in a racing story – all you genuine stories out there, please don’t take it personally – unsupported by any other medium, with only the most tenuous connection to a Tier-1.5 NASCAR driver (Bill Elliott). Yeah, the packs were only 79 cents and included seven cards and a sticker, but seven cards of what and a sticker of what? Seven cards of five characters, with a sticker showing one of the selfsame five characters and maybe a car, all rendered with the same precision of line exhibited by Peter Max in kindergarten. They couldn’t even have Birdie autographed cards because she’s a bird. She can’t hold a pen. She doesn’t have fingers.

There were also reports of “three special insert cards featuring the real ‘McDonald’s® Racing team driver, Bill Elliott™’ plus other fun items,” but I never stuck around to learn what the fun items were, or why “Bill Elliott” is a trademarked phrase [2], or what the quotation marks meant. 

Here’s a contemporary analogy. The McDonaldland 500 set is like redoing Criminal Minds with the cows from the Chick-Fil-A ads, and making a trading-card set of that.

(You listening, Upper Deck?)

Contractual Obligation Set that it clearly seemed to be, the McDonaldland 500 set made a quick lap around the track and was gone. On one hand, that’s a blessing. The product died before parents could get up in arms over a set of trading cards that uses cartoon characters to sell fat- and sugar-laden fast food to kids. (After seeing what public opinion did to Coors Cards, never underestimate the American public’s ability to whack down any trading-card set with a loose association to life’s milder vices. Never mind the multitudinous sports cards of tokers, dopers, intravenous drug users, aggravated assaulters, and miscellaneous misogynists.)

On the other hand, Collect-A-Card never was able to make a regular McDonald’s set, more’s the pity. Ol’ Neil and Nelson might have done something with that.

[1]  Ronald, Grimace, Hamburglar, Birdie the Early Bird, and the Fry Kids, in case you’ve forgotten.
[2] Because if I’m trademarking the name of a Tier-1.5 NASCAR driver, I’m going Coo Coo Marlin all the way.

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