A graveyard for failed greeting cards

/ Source: The Associated Press

Some were sent away for being too profane, others for making snide comments at inopportune times. Now the greeting cards that never made it to the stores hang solemnly on a wall at Hallmark Cards Inc.

For employees at Hallmark's Shoebox division who make their living writing humorous greetings, only a small fraction of their work does end up as cards for birthdays, holidays and special occasions. The best of the rest are brought to their final resting place — a giant fabric "NO" along one office wall.

"It could be that it's highly inappropriate. It could be that it feels like too much of an internal joke," said Sarah Tobaben, an editorial director for Shoebox. "We want to write for the mainstream while taking some appropriate risks."

Hallmark introduced its Shoebox line of irreverent cards 20 years ago this spring and says it has sold more than 2 billion since. Most days since the line's inception, card writers have been given an assignment to develop ideas for a specific category. They typically write them on blank 3-inch-by-5-inch index cards, folded to resemble a miniature greeting, and then they're tried out on co-workers in a roundtable read-off.

"I think sometimes the air gets sucked out of the room by something I've written," said Dan Taylor, a Shoebox stylist — the highest title bestowed on card writers. "It's actually beyond silence."

Those that elicit no laughter are eliminated; in all, an estimated 10 percent to 20 percent make the first cut. Editors whittle surviving ideas even further to come up with the line. Bill Gray, another Shoebox stylist, said in his 18 years writing cards he's come up with about 80,000 ideas, of which 13,000 made it past his peers and about 7,000 ultimately became cards.

Those that have earned a chuckle but not a nod to become a card are marked "FBN" for "Funny, But No" — a designation that has become a sort of badge of honor among writers.

"It starts with funny," Taylor said. "That's good."

With rejects roughly outnumbering winners 10 to one, there are plenty of FBNs to go around.

Among the losers is a holiday card that announces on its face, "Christmas just wouldn't be the same without peanut brittle." Then, inside: "Or Jesus."

And the drawing of a couple cuddling on a living room couch with a friendly bearded man, wearing a robe, sandals and a turban. The woman blurts: "Honey, this Afghan your mom gave us is really warm!"

Then there's a questionable get-well card with a big happy face on the front. On the inside, it reads, "Hi! Welcome back from your coma!"

Tobaben said rejecting the ideas doesn't mean they're not funny, it just means editors were skeptical of their selling power. "It comes down to, 'Would I send this?" she said.

Editors say the lines on what is appropriate are continually redrawn. No subjects are deemed completely off-limits, but Hallmark's line provides clues of some boundaries.

Off-color language is seldom used. Politics are typically avoided. And national security has become a more delicate subject since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Almost everything is offensive to someone," said Rachel Bolton, a company spokeswoman. "But we try not to cross the line into blatantly offensive. That's not what most people want."

Marn Jensen, a creative director at Hallmark who oversees lines including Shoebox, said consumers have shown an interest in humor that is more positive than may have been popular five or 10 years ago, when sarcastic, biting, even mean-spirited messages sold well. She said that shift hasn't been easy for writers.

"It's a little trickier to be funny and positive and happy and light," Jensen said.

Still, Taylor said he and his colleagues put all good-taste restrictions aside and simply brainstorm.

"It's better to just write the funniest thing you can think of," he said.

Sometimes, those ideas banished to the FBN graveyard are resurrected, but it's a rarity. And while writers sometimes have a hard time saying goodbye to a favorite entry, Gray is unsentimental about his fallen friends.

"They're just jokes. If the ones I write today don't make it there's always tomorrow," he said. "I forget them pretty fast once they're done."