There’s a rather humble hero roaming the streets and dirt roads of most populated areas, weaving intricate and long-lasting emotion-filled social webs meant to bring the people who ask for his help closer and closer, carrying their feelings, needs and hopes not only from house to house but also from generation to generation.
If I were to ask you what mechanisms and contexts you think play a significant role in keeping humans together by strengthening the way they relate and communicate with one another, greeting cards would probably not even make it on your response list. I know they wouldn’t have made it on mine until recently when I received a rather unexpected type of collaboration proposal in relation to Paperless Post, a leading online stationery service known for the high-level aesthetics of their products, the ingeniosity and flawless functionality of their in-house built technology, and the many high-profile users who made the brand a significant part in the structure of their events – among them, the Obama administration (2012 re-election campaign), Condoleeza Rice’s staff, fashion designers Diane Von Furstenberg and Zac Posen, and a variety of Hollywood A-listers. With more than 100 million users worldwide, Paperless Post’s evite/ecard service is definitely a response to a social need that I was intrigued to find out more about. So I said yes and started my very subjective and extremely fun research.
My first step was to educate myself a little bit on the history of greeting cards, since I had absolutely no knowledge about the topic aside from using them myself from time to time, sometimes even via Paperless Post, to keep in touch and express various well-wishes to my friends and business collaborators. I never stopped to think about the action in the larger social sense, about the significance of a very fit meme (in the sense given by Richard Dawkins – unit of information or culture) that’s been ‘convincing’ its hosts to pass it along from generation to generation, in what seem ever-increasing numbers. This is a meme good at replicating itself and its ability to adapt to the various historical and social contexts makes its resulting forms even more likely to be successfully kept into the meme pool for a long time.
It was interesting to discover that not much has changed when it comes to the main messages we pass on to each other on special occasions such as the New Year. Early illustrated greetings, dating all the way back to ancient Egypt and Rome – scent bottles, inscribed scarabs, and gold leaf coated olive and laurel branches, included messages very similar to those we send out today: “All good luck” (Ancient Egypt), “May the new year be happy and lucky for you” (Ancient Rome). Since then, we’ve moved on to more complex and varied messages and a wider range of occasions became the reason why people in modern society exchange well-wishes. Important events in the history of greeting cards include the selling and exchange of handmade greeting cards in Europe in the 15th Century, the use of the paper valentine (inscribed sentiment card) in the 16th Century, the first Christmas Card (1843, designed by John Callcott Horsley) and the production of greeting cards in commercial quantities starting with the 1860s. In present, the annual use of greeting cards in the U.S. alone is estimated to include over seven billion purchased cards and a total retail value of $7.5 billion.
No matter whether you assess the greeting card phenomenon from a historical, social or commercial value point of view, the result seems to point to its ongoing relevance.
Memes get passed on from one person to another, that is how they survive, but for a host to decide to invest their time and energy into the process of ‘helping’ a meme make it to another host, the person holding the unit of information or culture (it can be anything from an idea, a belief, a piece of music, etc) needs to be somehow ‘convinced’ to become a carrier. The meme needs to attach itself to the host and they have really ingenious ways to reach that goal. Playing on the host’s emotions is one of them.
A paper published in the The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in 1947 (by William E. Henry) addressed the cultural symbolism and the psychological content of greeting cards. In Art and Cultural Symbolism: A Psychological Study of Greeting Cards, the author argues that a person’s choice of greeting cards is closely linked to one’s needs, tailored by their personality traits. “Some commonality of these personal needs”, Henry writes, “may account for the mass acceptance of greeting cards”. People with similar cultural and educational background may exhibit similar selection preference when it comes to greeting cards.
Even though the paper would not necessarily pass a peer-review process based on today’s standards, the directions of inquiry and analysis are relevant. Henry offers two examples of card users and the observed link between their results to personality tests and their greeting card preferences. The first one refers to a woman who is focused on her career but whose personality test results and interview revealed that “she was lonely, profoundly lonely”. Her choice of greeting cards – sentimental ones, with warm, kind and friendly underlying messages – was seen by the author as a way to satisfy her lonely feeling and to convey to the people around her things she could not tell them herself. The second example is the analysis of another woman’s choice of greeting cards, but this time the woman is focused on her social image that is to be conveyed and controlled through possessions and extravagant life experiences. The greeting cards selected by her were to send the same message to the recipient – they weren’t to look “cheap”, or be “too gushy”. In this sense, the cards become a tool of social image control and are also expected to be the extension of a person’s main traits – actual or desired. Henry’s findings and analyses make sense to me. We tend to project our desires, traits, and hopes onto almost everything around us. Why would greeting cards make a difference, especially since they seem to hold such meaning socially?
Another study, authored by John T. Cacioppo and Barbara L. Andersen and published in 1981 in Basic and applied social psychology takes a look at greeting cards as data on social processes. Greeting cards, the authors consider, can be used as “archival database for research on social processes”, and they move on to analyze birthday cards for sons and daughters to illustrate the method. Their findings are interesting, but for the purpose of this article, I will extract one of their premises – that that “consumers are likely to purchase those [cards] that best approximate their desired communication, and the cards that dominate a merchandiser’s stock are likely to represent the consumers’ desires.”
That’s how the greeting card meme survives: it must represent the host’s desires as closely as possible. A design or a message that strays severely from the desires, needs, and feelings most commonly shared by people in a culture or at a global level, will cause the product to be discarded from the merchandiser’s stock, thus disappearing from the meme pool.
Lucky for most greeting card memes, there are many occasions that convince people to express their feelings via this type of product. From personal to professional contexts, from happy events to undesirable and difficult ones, there seems to be a card for most shared human life events, social relationships and for all sorts of random significant feeling-generating contexts.
Now that I had this basic understanding of the greeting cards world, I decided to move to the second stage of my little project and use the Paperless Post incredibly generous collection of e-cards (told you these memes develop in ways that fit historical and technical changes, they’re good) and see what I could find out about the modern consumer’s desires based on their selection of cards. “Most Popular” search filter, here I come!
*Since Paperless Post has an overwhelming number of cards, invitations, and flyers available on the website, I will restrict my analysis to only a few main categories of cards.
Feminine, designer collections. I’m thinking that most birthday cards are being sent to women (people who identify with this gender).
Love and Romance
Kisses, hugs, a pun and… some type of humor I am not sure I understand. These choices seem rather infantile to me. Could it be that teenagers and young adults send most cards in the Love and Romance category? Or do we mainly feel like sending cards to our romantic interest only in the beginning stages of love? I am rather surprised by these results, I must say.
I think this is my favorite category. The idea that you can send a card for no official reason seems great to me. Unexpected, truthful, just because you want to get in touch with someone you appreciate. Notice that the most popular cards in this category basically match those in Love and Romance. It seems that we send out cards for no structured reason mainly when we are in love.
Sympathy cards seem to be marked by a message of tenderness (flowers, calligraphy). They also convey support.
Support and motivational messages. I also get a feeling that there is an underlying “it takes time to achieve your goals” belief contained by these cards. Reasonable approach.
There was also a third stage to my journey through the wonderfully colored realm of greeting cards: Choosing, customizing and sending out my own cards. 🙂 This process was extremely entertaining. There is a wide variety of products, even designer collections – I did send a few cards designed by kate spade new york and Oscar de la Renta to my friends, as well as Just Because cards that matched my relationship to the people I was sending them to. It was great to also send funny, inner-joke-based cards to my best friends and… one to myself. Because, why not? I guess if a woman can buy herself flowers, she can also send herself a nice card once in a while. Self-appreciation is a wonderful thing too, you know.
Paperless Post allows you not only to customize your card’s details until it matches your style and message perfectly, but you can also track the progress and follow-up with the recipients directly on the platform. Even if they do not have a Paperless Post account, the people you send the cards to can reply to you if you choose the option before hitting the Send button. The following images capture my best friends’ reactions to the cards I’ve sent them and their feedback on the entire experience. I take it they were quite happy.
No, I did not reply to myself. 🙂
I chose not to reveal the actual cards that I’ve sent to my friends, but I will share one thing: they cannot be found in the Most Popular section. There are so many options out there, I encourage you to take your time and find the content that best matches your own style, your relationship to the person you are going to send the card to and the occasion.
So, which greeting card meme are you going to save today?
Arikoglu, L. (2018, January 30). These Power Siblings Started the Paperless Post Empire. Retrieved from https://observer.com/2015/10/these-power-siblings-started-an-invitation-empire/
Britannica, T. E. (2017, July 12). Greeting card. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/greeting-card
Cacioppo, J. T., & Andersen, B. L. (1981). Greeting Cards as Data on Social Processes. Basic and applied social psychology, 2(2), 115-119.
Henry, W. (1947). Art and Cultural Symbolism: A Psychological Study of Greeting Cards. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 6(1), 36-44. doi:10.2307/426176
McGEE, C. (2009, June 10). Online Stationery Company Gains a Fashionable Following. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/11/fashion/11post.html
The History of Greeting Cards. (2018, February 14). Retrieved from https://www.greetingcard.org/industry-resources/history/
P.S. The platform credit used in relation to this collaboration was offered by Paperless Post.
Photo Sources: Copyright (C) Paperless Post.