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Alternative Cards : The Offbeat Message: It Pays Off

June 25, 1985|NANCY YOSHIHARA | Times Staff Writer

At Aahs!, a trendy Westwood shop, the walls are covered with hundreds of offbeat greeting cards that you will not typically find in your local Hallmark store. One card has a cover with a drawing of Ronald Reagan dressed in pajamas that can be cut out like a paper doll. Inside the card are different hats and outfits, ranging from a cowboy suit to a czar's regalia.

At Puente Hills Mall, curious shoppers are drawn into It's a Small World. They pass through a portal that sports two $395 fake palm trees and a giant $2,000 artificial fuchsia plant and discover hundreds of cards. One woman giggles as she goes through a rack of "insult" cards signed inside: "Anonymously Yours."

"I love these," she said. "I can send them to all my rotten friends!"

Welcome to the world of alternative card stores, which are popping up all over the country. Their cards are avant-garde, funny, risque, irreverent and sometimes downright raunchy, and American shoppers are finding them a refreshing change from the traditional offerings of Hallmark Cards, American Greetings and Gibson Greetings.

2 Humdrum Categories

Ten years ago, the alternative card market was almost non-existent. Greeting cards fell into two categories: the traditional fare with a rose on the cover and a seven-line poem inside or studio cards with cartoon drawings and unsophisticated humor.

Today, alternative cards are expanding faster than any other segment of the greeting card market, with an estimated 25% growth rate compared to the overall market's 5%. Alternative cards account for nearly a tenth of the $3.2 billion in greeting card sales.

The increasing popularity of alternative cards is catapulting once small-time card makers, such as Recycled Paper Products, Paper Moon and California Dreamers, into multimillion-dollar companies with worldwide operations. Artists and photographers are discovering a new outlet for their talents, and enterprising entrepreneurs are cashing in with stores that go by such names as Aahs!, the Card Factory, Art Explosion, Paper Doll and Freudian Slip.

'Less Serious'

Even the big card makers are getting into the alternative act. Hallmark has offbeat lines like SummerTree Press, Love Talk and Lite, which it calls "a third less serious than regular greeting cards." American Greetings also has alternative lines and is testing Squiggles and Giggles, its version of an alternative card shop, but will not disclose where the stores are or how many it is testing.

The big appeal of alternative cards is that they offer a cheap (85 cents to $3) way of communicating messages and images appropriate to today's life styles. The cards are being sent for any and all occasions, not just for such special events as birthdays and anniversaries.

They offer sophisticated, contemporary messages that people want but, perhaps, dare not to relay in person. "People like to say things without actually saying them," said Ivan Rubin, a consultant to It's a Small World.

R. Chris Martin, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri who is a consultant to Hallmark, said, "It is becoming OK to say what you're feeling because . . . it is more mentally healthy to recognize your feelings and get them out on the table and get feedback."

The new cards address once sensitive topics like divorce, working women, stepchildren and pets as well as conventional ones like as birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and bereavement.

Card illustrations range from slick graphics, a specialty of Culver City-based Paper Moon, to the commercial-looking photographs of California Dreamers to simple drawings like those of artist Sandra Boynton for Recycled Paper Products. She is considered a pioneer in the alternative card field.

Animals, especially those dressed in outlandish clothes, are favorites for card covers. So are men and women--many undressed or sparingly clothed--in beefcake and cheesecake poses. Many of the cards appeal to special groups, like gays. There are Betty Boop and Joan Rivers cards, reprints of old movie posters and a host of other creations.

Recycled Paper Products' best-selling card for the last seven years has been "Hippo Birdie Two Ewes," a takeoff on the traditional "Happy Birthday" song illustrated by a hippo, a bird and two ewes.

Four-Letter Words

A card by California Dreamers shows an overweight woman in a pink workout suit, slumped on a stool with an exasperated look. Inside it reads, "I could learn to hate Jane Fonda."

When there is no other way to express a sentiment but in four-letter words, there are cards for that, too. "It used to be it was a man's world and a woman's place was in the home," says a card showing a man with a briefcase waving goodby to his robe-clad spouse and two children. The thought is completed inside: "They can kiss that s--- goodby."

Many of the cards are risque and very adult in humor. "Some quite frankly are not appropriate to send to everyone," said Chuck Holst of the Los Angeles firm of Holst/Bowen Inc., a manufacturers' representative.

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