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JACK SMITH

A Lick on a Promise? : Imagine Stamps Carrying Advertising Claims Instead of American Icons

May 15, 1988|JACK SMITH

SINCE WE have recently seen the cost of a postage stamp rise from 22 to 25 cents, we may be amenable to a suggestion by Fred A. Glienna of South Pasadena for increasing the revenue of the Postal Service and improving service by selling advertising space on stamps.

"It will generate revenue, create jobs, help maintain the high quality of our postal service and prevent postage increases," he argues, "while costing the taxpayer nothing."

At first glance, the idea is revolting. The images on our stamps are sacrosanct. They represent, for the most part, American heroes or heroines (one of my favorites was Edna St. Vincent Millay), American works of art or American institutions. They are inevitably inspirational and rarely humorous. Certainly, as far as I can remember, they have never been commercial. The business of America may be business, but the postage stamp has remained unsullied by the messages of business that otherwise pervade our lives.

To commercialize stamps would seem to be the ultimate corruption of one of the few institutions that remain above reach of the advertising dollar. We have all accepted ignominiously a plethora of sometimes silly commercials as the price we pay for free reception of our favorite soaps, sports shows, sitcoms and newscasts.

Our newspapers, the cornerstone of our democracy, come to us through the largess of advertisers. Billboards cry for our attention. Every mailbox is stuffed with junk mail advertising everything from shoes to spectacles or promoting every charity from baby seals to unwed mothers. Even at the movies, prisoners in our seats, we are subjected to commercials before the movie starts.

As any adman will tell you, advertising makes the world go round. It keeps the wheels turning, keeps the money flowing, keeps that mysterious phenomenon--the economy--healthy.

Why not sell space on stamps for advertising? What would we have to lose? Would we suffer a spiritual decline if what we saw when we licked a stamp and applied it to an envelope was not the stone faces of Mt. Rushmore but a picture of Queen Victoria advertising Bombay Gin?

Would we be any less muscular as a republic if we saw, instead of John F. Kennedy, the face of Sylvester Stallone advertising "Rocky V"?

Would I feel compromised if, instead of looking into the somber eyes of Abraham Lincoln on a stamp, I looked into the eyes of one of those sensuous, exotic, slinky women advertising Passion perfume? Wouldn't my letter get there as fast--and maybe faster, since the advertising fees would have helped improve the service?

Admit it. We all enjoy advertising. If the images and symbols of advertising were suddenly removed from our environment, the world would seem suddenly much duller. I have an idea that if newspapers were to publish without advertising, they would lose half their circulation. Ads tell us almost as much about ourselves as the news.

There is no doubt that TV commercials are often more entertaining, and certainly more artistic, than the programs they interrupt: the Perrier ad showing French schoolgirls running in the woods, the American Express ad showing a father using his card to fly home to catch the curtain of his daughter's school performance and the American Express ad in which a Good Samaritan loses his card while stopping on a highway to change a tire for an elderly couple, then has no card to check into his hotel, but is rescued over the telephone by an utterly sweet and lovely American Express agent.

Such ads, and there are quite a few, are refreshments. But many, alas, are banal, crass, oppressive and insulting.

Glienna foresees that philatelists might protest advertising on stamps. "I appreciate the lofty tradition of quality stamps as collectible investments and aesthetic diversions, but I consider more important the lightening of a steadily increasing burden to the taxpayer. Given a choice between higher postage rates and interesting first issues, I suspect most of us would prefer Drink Coca-Cola! or Ford Has a Better Idea and lower rates."

The only 22-cent stamps my wife and I have left show a heart under the word LOVE . Would we really resent it so much if the words My Toyota appeared at the bottom?

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