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Guest views: Postage stamps for the email generation

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December 9, 2013

If you're preparing to send out hundreds of holiday greetings in a single email blast, you probably missed the dust-up between the philatelists and the marketing department over the U.S. Postal Service's new Harry Potter stamps.

Last month, the post office released 20 stamps featuring the boy wizard and the rest of the Hogwarts cast. The pictures, scenes from the Warner Bros. movies, are meant to appeal to the youngsters enthralled by the J.K. Rowling books on which the films were based.

Which is pretty funny, when you think about it, because that audience has never licked a stamp in its life. We know, we know, stamps are adhesive now. Try making them into temporary tattoos, and you might find a market among the Harry Potter generation. But if you think kids are going to stick them on envelopes, well, what's an envelope?

More and more, today's young people—and by “young people,” we mean “people under 80”—rely on the Internet to exchange messages, pay bills and share snapshots. Nobody has much need for stamps anymore, which is a big reason the post office lost $5 billion in its last fiscal year.

To get people to buy more of them, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe told The Washington Post, the agency “needs to change its focus toward stamps that are more commercial.” That has led to some skirmishes between the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations to the postal service about what should appear on stamps, and the agency's marketing staff, which is working feverishly to update the postal brand.

For more than half a century, the advisory panel has sifted through tens of thousands of public petitions each year, recommending designs that best chronicle the American experience. Lately, though, the marketing team—led by a former Coca-Cola executive—has promoted a more contemporary line of stamps, with an emphasis on pop culture.

That explains what Bart Simpson was doing on a postage stamp a few years back. It explains the Harry Potter stamps, too. The hope is that kids will become collectors, if not correspondents.

But the advisory panel members are feeling marginalized. They see the standards slipping.

Two years ago, the post office dropped a rule requiring the subjects of stamps to be deceased, clearing the way, some grumble, for the inevitable Lady Gaga stamp. The public is invited to nominate subjects via Facebook, Twitter, or, you know, the mail.

The postal service has had mixed success with celebrity stamps.

In 1993, it issued a 29-cent Elvis Presley stamp, after polling Americans on whether they'd prefer a depiction of “young” or “old” Elvis (they picked young). Two years and three cents later, the first-class stamp featured Marilyn Monroe, celebrating what would have been her 69th birthday.

But the traditionalists rose up in 1997, when the postal service dedicated a 32-cent stamp to Bugs Bunny.

“The USPS is promoting stamps as a fad, like hula hoops, POGs and their ilk,” a reader wrote to the editor of Linn's Stamp News, the philatelist's bible. (POGs! Remember them?)

“Every time the USPS places another childish gimmick on a postage stamp, another child decides stamp collecting is for babies and gets on with hobbies that don't patronize,” wrote another.

“We need to stay in business,” a postal service spokesman told the Baltimore Sun. Do we hear a shrug there?

Then, as now, the idea was to sell stamps to young people who rarely mail anything. That doesn't sound like much of a turnaround strategy. It would take an awful lot of Miley Cyrus stamps to save the U.S. Postal Service.

—The Chicago Tribune



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