The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism, Slate’s new podcast about companies in the news and how they got there.
There’s a large fan base of people who love to watch Hallmark movies, maybe a little ironically, or maybe with sincerity, or maybe sometimes a little bit of both. Tressie McMillan Cottom is one of them. She’s a sociologist who mostly studies serious stuff, but when it comes to Hallmark movies, she has a weak spot.
“Nobody ever asks me about something like Hallmark. I do this all day. All they ever want me to come and talk about is the end of the world. I’m like, ‘I would really much rather talk about Hallmark,’ ” Cottom says. “One of the things that Hallmark does give me is I get to turn my brain off.”
Hallmark has made hundreds of these movies, and it cranks out a few dozen more each holiday season. With every passing year, the Hallmark Movie Universe, as Cottom calls it, seems to get more cultural traction. It’s become the focus of adoring tweets and blog posts and podcasts. “Like every good cult, does anybody know when they signed up for the cult? Just one day, you live on the compound,” she says.
Hallmark movies are gentle affairs. Nothing truly disturbing ever happens. Passions and furies are muted, squeezed into an easy-to-digest piece of holiday-adjacent commerce—which, when you think about it, has always been Hallmark’s bread and butter. Cottom says the movies and the greeting cards are selling the same thing: nostalgia. “A greeting card is about making nostalgia a commodity. Not to get all critical theory on you, but they take emotions and they turn them into an exchange. A prewritten message that captures what you feel—that’s what a greeting card is. And so, in the same way, the Hallmark Movie Universe is about nostalgia.”
Hallmark’s is a particular kind of nostalgia for an imaginary time when there was no social conflict. In Hallmark movies and in Hallmark greeting cards, there are no overt politics. But in real life, no one can escape politics, not even the Hallmark corporation.
In January, days after the deadly Capitol riot, Hallmark’s PAC asked Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall to return campaign donations from the company, stating that the senators’ “recent actions” in support of baseless claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election “do not reflect our company’s values.” “Hallmark believes the peaceful transition of power is part of the bedrock of our democratic system,” the Kansas City–based company said—which doesn’t seem like a radical stand, but for Hallmark it was genuinely bold. For more than a century now, Hallmark has specialized in turning feelings into revenue—and avoided emotions that might be too big to fit in an envelope.
In 1951, Hallmark sponsored a live TV special on NBC. It was a Christmas-themed opera called Amahl and the Night Visitors. It was tasteful, family-friendly, and holiday-adjacent—all very on-brand. Hallmark continued to sponsor classy TV events like this for decades, under the banner “Hallmark Hall of Fame.” These were marketing efforts meant to generate goodwill for the greeting card business. But when the greeting card business began to slip, Hallmark realized that TV might not just be a way to gin up publicity, but also a way to gin up ancillary profits.
In the 1990s, everybody was launching cable channels—the Food Network, HGTV—and in 1998, Hallmark got in the game, buying a struggling religious network called Odyssey and renaming it the Hallmark Channel. At first, it just aired the Hallmark Hall of Fame back catalog and reruns of other family-friendly fare. But then, Hallmark started making its own original Christmas movies. The first one was in 2002. It was called Santa Jr. Santa Claus’ son gets arrested for trespassing while delivering toys and is helped by a public defender played by semi-famous actress Lauren Holly.
Hallmark kept making movies like this and started cranking out dozens of them each year. By 2011, the channel was running its “Countdown to Christmas” marathon of round-the-clock Christmas rom-coms, most of them set in small towns, full of snowy charm and Hallmark Christmas ornaments. These movies have attracted a gigantic fan base, so big that the Hallmark Channel is now routinely the No. 1 cable network for a big chunk of November and December. And Hallmark’s slate of Christmas films keeps getting more and more ambitious: “You can tell that they’ve given them a little bit more budget,” Tressie McMillan Cottom says. “They don’t spend half the movie at the same gazebo.”
And she’s noticed something else about Hallmark’s compact with its audience: “There won’t be any uncomfortable conversations, whether that is about race, class, sexuality, whatever. There’s no capitalism, for example, right? There are no negative aspects to the economy. There’s nothing like that.”
Hallmark didn’t feature Black leads in a Christmas movie until 2018. Its female protagonists often give up high-powered careers to settle down with a man. Hallmark’s movies are like Hallmark’s cards: small-c conservative, Midwestern nice, rounding the nasty edges off of unruly emotions. The cards are that way because people want to express themselves inoffensively. The movies are that way because advertisers want to express themselves inoffensively.
As Cottom puts it, “they’re like this because they’re trying to sell you dish soap.” With its Christmas movies, Hallmark is making a very specific offer to advertisers: “We can promise you eyeballs, and we can promise you they’re happy. They haven’t just finished watching an interracial couple have a negative experience with the police and then, oops, here comes Tide Pen. No, they’re in a pretty good mood for you. And I think that’s got to be really attractive to their advertisers.”
Recently, though, Hallmark has run into trouble when it’s tried so hard to be inoffensive it ends up offending. During the 2019 Christmas movie season, Hallmark initially declined to air an ad featuring two brides kissing at a same-sex wedding, calling it too controversial. Advocates for gay and lesbian representation protested: Why should Hallmark’s soft-focus romantic fantasy be off limits to them? In the end, Hallmark did run the ad and apologized. Its CEO resigned amid the kerfuffle.
Hallmark now seems bent on atoning, but Cottom says they’re doing it in a very tamped-down, Hallmark-y way: “They had their first gay couple this holiday season. But to make that palatable, the couple was married, they were white, they were cisgender, and espoused the very traditional marriage structure. The labor between them was gendered. They’re going to adopt a child, they talked about who was going to stay home to do the child rearing—again, gay, but not what we would call queer, right?”
Hallmark is still a privately held company in the heart of America with multiple members of the Hall family remaining on the board of directors. The Halls have always trailed behind the times, but the company’s ethos seems driven in large part by its customers—the people who buy greeting cards earnestly, the people who watch Christmas movies earnestly. And Cottom thinks it’s important not to devalue those customers’ feelings: “It’s not OK with me when people make fun of its audience. And I don’t get cagey about that and upset because I am in the audience, because I know I’m not the typical consumer. I get cagey about it because I think that consumer has retreated into Hallmark precisely because they feel like they’re so often mocked and made fun of. We mock them because they’re women, and we mock them because they’re not rich, and they may not be very sophisticated or they’re not the beautiful people perhaps, but I really don’t like it when we make fun of the audience.”
I think it’s safe to say that Hallmark would agree. In 1971, Hallmark’s then editorial director made sort of an amazing comment. “The media culture might be the point on the arrow; we are the shaft,” he said. “What percentage of the population will read a book tonight? Two? Three? Today 25 million people will send a greeting card.” Hallmark introduced cards commemorating divorces, cards about addiction and recovery, cards that featured sarcastic humor, long after those things were commonplace in American life and on American TV. The company wasn’t trying to drive the conversation; it had decided that its customers were ready and wanted to express those kinds of sentiments.
The very nature of buying a Hallmark card is an incredibly earnest act. You can picture the person who wants to reach out, to comfort, to congratulate, to keep up with a friendship, but feels they don’t have the eloquence to do it in their own words. Hallmark’s challenge has always been to stay squarely within this person’s sense of what’s appropriate, what’s reasonable, what’s normal. Get too far out ahead, you might lose them. Fall too far behind, and you’re no longer relevant to the things that are happening in their lives. Hallmark customers might not exactly care enough to send the very best, but they care enough to send something, and that’s not nothing.