Hallmark and the Selling of Sentiment

Listen to this episode

S1: Nobody ever asked me about something like, oh, my God, do this all day, all they ever want me to come and talk about is the end of the world. And like, I would really much rather talk about Hallmark.

S2: Tracie McMillan Cottam is a sociologist. She mostly studies serious stuff. But when it comes to Hallmark movies, she has a weak spot.

S1: Well, I, of course, have an entire notebook full of Hallmark movie ideas. I mean, if I’m going to sit there and watch them, I’m going to rewrite them.

Advertisement

S3: There’s a large fan base out there, if people like Tracy who love to watch Hallmark movies, maybe a little ironically or maybe with sincerity or maybe sometimes a little bit of both.

S4: One of the things that Hallmark does give me is, of course, I get to turn my brain off.

S5: 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 Tracy 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.

S6: I mean, does anybody know when they signed up for the cult? Just one day you live on the compound.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: 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 experience, a magical movie inspired by Hallmark artist Jeff Greenley.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S7: Christmas is supposed to look like it will fulfill your deepest wish only if you know what your heart really went with magic that will change their Christmases forever. That magic, it’s all around us.

S2: Barbara Nithin, Holly Robinson, can you see a link between the ethos of the typical Hallmark movie and like the ethos of the typical Hallmark greeting card?

S1: Oh, yeah. They’re selling the same. A nostalgia.

Advertisement

S4: All right, a greeting card is about making nostalgia, a commodity, not get like all critical theory on you, but, you know, they take emotions and they turn them into an exchange, you know, a pre written 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.

S5: 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.

S2: But in real life, no one can escape politics, not even the Hallmark Corporation.

S1: I saw a story recently about the Hallmark PAC Political Action Committee, withdrawing their donations from some of the Republican senators who had supported contesting the Electoral College certification. And I thought that was fascinating.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S8: As the Whorley fallout continues, some of the biggest names in business are distancing themselves financially. Hallmark’s David says the recent actions of the two do not reflect the company’s values.

S9: The card company is even going a step further with this, though it’s asking the Holly campaign to give back seven thousand dollars in donations that have already been given in January.

S2: Hallmark, which is based in Kansas City, asked Missouri Senator Josh Holly and Kansas Senator Roger Marshall to return campaign donations from the company, stating that Hallmark believes in the peaceful transition of power, which doesn’t seem like a radical stance. But for Hallmark, it was genuinely bold. For more than a century now, Hallmark has been a tightly held Midwestern business, its mastered the art of turning feelings into revenue. But can it succeed in an era when emotions might be getting too big to fit in an envelope as we approach Valentine’s Day 2021? What sort of tender missive is Hallmark sending us? I’m Seth Stevenson. Welcome to Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S10: Today on the show, Hallmark and the selling of sentiment when you care enough to bend the very best.

S11: I grew up in Kansas City and I’ve always been aware of the cultural dominance of Hallmark in that town. How is it a presence in your life? You’ve obviously never grown up in Kansas City, dude.

S2: Barry Schenck is a professor of comparative studies. He wrote a book about greeting cards called A Token of My Affection.

S11: There were people on the suburban street that I grew up in, a couple of houses up in a couple of houses down that worked for Hallmark. Hallmark was one of the actually, you know, and probably still is one of the best companies to work for in Kansas City.

Advertisement

S5: The story of Hallmark begins in 1910 when Joyce Clyde Hall, known as J.C., left his little town in Nebraska and stepped off a train in Kansas City holding two boxes of postcards. He began selling them out of his room at the YMCA.

S8: Hallmark greeting card starts as a postcard company. This is part of the postcard craze that happened in the first decade of the 20th century.

S5: The boom in postcards was in large part a result of America’s growing mobility.

S8: So you get people traveling on trains for leisure and then wanting to send evidence that they had been places. And that’s what the postcards did.

S2: But there were a couple of problems with the postcard business. First, there wasn’t much barrier to entry. A zillion postcard companies soon sprang up selling low quality postcards very cheaply.

Advertisement

S12: And the other problem, writing on a postcard wasn’t private. So what if you could get something a little fancier than a postcard and put it inside an envelope for privacy, but still keep the message short, not write a letter and still have some of the work done for you with a pre printed image and maybe a sentimental phrase. That’ll be a great way to reach out to someone without a ton of effort.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: But now how about instead of linking it to your travels like a postcard, you link your note to an occasion.

S5: Voila, the greeting card, which became the next big trend, J.C. Hall and his brothers, who followed him to Kansas City, jumped on the greeting card bandwagon in a big way. They used the proceeds from their successful postcard business to buy a printing plant in 1915, and they began to sell greeting cards, dividing them into two tracks birthdays and condolences and such year round and then seasonal cards for specific holidays. And if there weren’t enough holidays, well, just make some new ones.

Advertisement

S8: During the 1910s and 1920s, the greeting card industry, along with the candy industry and the flower industry, participated in the creation of multiple holidays throughout the calendar year. Mother’s Day was an early example of a created holiday. Father’s Day was created when the awkwardness of making special day cards for fathers on Mother’s Day just came to impossible to ignore. So they had to create a Father’s Day.

S5: In 1928, the whole started to advertise in Ladies Home Journal and on radio shows.

S13: Go home and make of the Hallmark greeting card h l l m r today, a greeting card, the holiday renew your old friend Tony one reading from his radio scrapbook.

Advertisement

S2: In 1932, they signed a pioneering deal to put Disney characters on cards, Cartes Mickey Mouse was just four years old at the time. Hallmark would later license popular art from many other sources, ranging from Peanuts comic strips to Salvador Dali in 1944. The company’s longtime slogan first appeared, When you care enough to send the very best. It was boastful, but also a little guilt trip. The implication was that any other card meant you didn’t quite care as much. After decades of very successfully running, Hallmark, Jack Hall stepped down in 1966 and was replaced by his son. Don and Don did something you might not expect with a company based on paper products and sentimental messages. He went high tech. J.C. had always paid close attention to the messages and images that were printed on his cards and how and where they were distributed. But when the computer age arrived, Homer could quantify those decisions using hard data.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S8: In the 60s, Hallmark bought in big with computers and started keeping computer records of what was actually selling and analyzing the sentiments and analyzing the images for, you know, just creating simple spreadsheets. But the spreadsheet was an innovative idea. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, keeping track of the actual sales of the combination of image and sentiment over time was the main thing that established sort of the dominance of a company like Hallmark over their other competitors and made it so that they were the ones who became nationally known and lasted for 50, 60, 70, 80 years.

S2: So someone buys a Hallmark Valentine’s card for their sweetheart and Hallmark feeds that information into a spreadsheet to help it make decisions. It’s not a super romantic process, but let’s step back for a second. This whole business of greeting cards is when you think about it, a little weird. Greeting cards sort of uncomfortably highlight the inadequacy that we often feel when it comes to expressing our intimate emotions. A lot of us would rather just give up and pay somebody else to do it.

S11: The possibility that we could actually develop a language of personal, deep, meaningful communication with each other, you know, who has the time to do that? Who has the skills to do that?

S2: We don’t, you know, and so we outsource our feelings to a bunch of writers and artists working for a big company in Kansas City. This isn’t new. As far back as the seventeen hundreds, there were things you could buy called Valentine writers, which were lists of nice things to say in a note to your lover, which you could then copy out in your own handwriting. Hallmark is a 20th century version of this old trick, and for lots of people it makes sense. Maybe you write poetry to your boo on Valentine’s Day, or maybe you compose a perfect note to comfort your bereaved co-worker. But if you’re the kind of person who’s eager to express your emotions using your own original language, well, you’re the exception.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S11: Most people are using the words that are around them all the time, and they’re happy to use the words that are around them all the time. And what Hallmark did was find a way to get words that mattered to people who didn’t feel like they had the eloquence, but knew that they had to say something on Valentine’s Day. It was an obligation.

S2: So greeting cards solve this messy problem people had with expressing emotions. But greeting cards also served another purpose.

S11: Most Valentine’s cards, most Christmas cards, most Mother’s Day cards. What really happens to them? They get put up on the mantel, they get displayed, they get shown.

S2: You could say they were the social media of their day.

S11: What they’re supposed to do is demonstrate really materialize for a public viewing the existence of the social, emotional relationship.

S12: If you think about the modern analogue of this, it’s Facebook, a way to sort of materially manifest the people. Your friends with a Christmas card list was a lot like your friend list. And yes, people could defend you or be defriended from one Christmas to the next. The preprinted sentiments on Hallmark cards also made it quick and easy to maintain connections the way a like button or a hastily shared meme save us the effort of crafting an original message.

S2: But as that analogy suggests, Hallmark was doing a job that would eventually migrate onto the Internet. And even before Facebook, Hallmark’s business was facing competition from email, which provided a cheap and instantaneous way to send someone a quick note.

S11: With the rise of email and other electronic communications became really necessary for them to develop alternative strategies for marketing sentiment, which again, Hallmark was better at than anybody else.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S14: Hallmark had diversified over time in 1973 and launched a line of Christmas ornaments that were a big hit in 1984, it bought the Crayola crayon company, which meshed with Hallmark’s family friendly image. But greeting cards were the heart of Hallmark’s business and as card sales declined in the 1990s.

S5: The company was driven to find other channels, if you will, in which to express its core competence, which is putting a tidy bow on emotions.

S15: I wonder if you remember the first Hallmark Christmas movie you saw?

S4: Oh, that that’s a good question. It was definitely one with a blonde woman that does not narrow it down.

S5: More from Tracy McMillan-Scott. When we come back.

S10: First of all, Merry Christmas to you all.

S16: I do hope you haven’t sent your children to bed because actually this is that number for children.

S5: In 1951, Hallmark sponsored a live TV special on NBC. It was a Christmas themed opera called Amahl and the Night Visitors are your real key.

S2: Yes, it was tasteful, family friendly and holiday adjacent. All very endearing little boy. What do you do? I was.

S17: Chief. Hallmark card, when you care enough to send the very best presents, the Hallmark Hall of Fame in this reporting season, it is again our aim to present television entertainment worthy of Hallmark continued to sponsor classy TV events like this for decades under the banner Hallmark Hall of Fame.

S2: 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 HDTV, and in 1998, Hallmark got in the game buying a struggling religious network called Oddisee 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 like Kris.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S18: Kris Kringle.

S2: See, now you’re just messing with Junior, it’s Kris Kringle Jr. The first one was in 2002. It was called Santa Jr. Santa Claus. His son gets arrested for trespassing while delivering toys and is helped by a public defender played by semi famous actress Lauren.

S18: Holly had a weird dream last night. Weird how it was Christmas. And I had been crying my eyes out over that loser, Brian and I falling asleep. In the dream, something like.

S2: There was Santa Claus and I started crying again, and Homer 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 said in small towns full of snowy charm and Hallmark Christmas ornaments.

S19: Our firm’s biggest client, he’s got his heart set on a piece of property in your hometown of Deerfield. My eyes to see me as an optical illusion. Good to see you, Dustin. Does Dustin still do the Christmas scavenger hunt? Yeah, he’s the reigning champion. Oh, that’s right. You guys were in love. I remember.

S2: You broke my heart. The hunt starts. These movies have attracted a gigantic fan base so big that the Hallmark Channel is now routinely the number one cable network for a big chunk of November and December. And Hallmark Slate of Christmas films keeps getting more and more ambitious.

S4: And you can tell that they’ve given them a little bit more budget. You know, they don’t spend half the movie at the same gazebo.

S2: Sociologist Tracy McMillan Cottam mostly watches Hallmark movies to turn her brain off, but the cultural critic in her can’t help but remark upon the contours of the Hallmark movie universe.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I think there are a couple of elements to the Hallmark compact with their audience. There won’t be any uncomfortable conversations, whether that is about race, class, sexuality, whatever. There’s no capitalism, for example, right there, no negative aspects to the economy. There’s nothing like that.

S2: 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 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.

S4: They’re like this because they’re trying to sell you dish soap.

S2: With its Christmas movies, Hallmark is making a very specific offer to advertisers.

S1: We can promise you eyeballs and we can promise you they’re happy.

S6: They haven’t just finished watching like an interracial couple, you know, have a negative experience with the police and then, oops, here comes Tiepin, right? No, they’re a pretty good mood for you.

S4: And I think it’s got to be really attractive to their advertisers.

S9: Recently, though, Hallmark has run into trouble when it’s tried so hard to be inoffensive, it ends up offending after major public backlash, the Hallmark Channel is reversing its controversial decision to pull ads featuring a lesbian couple kissing at the altar.

S5: Now, the ads during the 2010 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 Tracy McMillan Cottam says they’re doing it in a very tamped down hallmarking way.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: They had their first gay couple in the movie universe this holiday season, but to make that palatable, the couple was married, they were white. They were, as we say, this, you know, CIS gendered and espoused a very traditional marriage structure.

S6: You know, the labor between them was gender. 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.

S2: Hallmark is still a privately held company in the heart of America, with multiple members of the whole family remaining on the board of directors, the holes 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 trusty McMillan-Scott them thinks it’s important not to devalue those customers feelings.

S4: It’s not OK with me when people make fun of its audience, and I don’t get cagey about that in 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. And we mock them because they’re women and we mock them because they’re not rich and they may not be very sophisticated or, you know, they’re not the beautiful people, perhaps, but I really don’t like it when we make fun of the audience.

S5: I think it’s safe to say that Hallmark would agree in 1971, Hallmark’s then editorial director made a sort of amazing comment. The media culture might be the point on the arrow. He said, we are the shaft. What percentage of people will read a book tonight? Two, three. Today, 25 million people will send a greeting card. Hallmark introduced cards commemorating divorcées cards about addiction and recovery cards that featured sarcastic humor.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: 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.

S20: 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 a friendship, but feel they don’t have the eloquence to do it in their own words.

S5: 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.

S2: Humar customers might not exactly care enough to send the very best, but they care enough to send something and that’s not nothing.

S5: That’s our show for today. This episode was produced by Jeff Miller and Cleo Levin. Technical Direction from Merritt. Jacob Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for Audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast network. Next week on the show, how do you get people excited about the world of cloud based B2B software?

S15: It’s kind of like a music festival, but for customer relationship management nerds, that’s next week on Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism.