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Naturally, I got Eileene a card for Valentine’s Day. (No, not just a card.) It features a young girl with a dopey tongue-extended expression of concentration on her face and an electronic gadget in her hands. The caption reads something like “Hbppz Vcldmtimfs Cay!”—a joke about texting and the difficulty some people have with it.

People like me. Never particularly good with my fingers in the first place, my current efforts to type into a phone are compounded by a lack of practice and middle age. Eileene gets lots of practice; the term “junkie” comes to mind. Never particularly patient in the first place, she gets irritated at my slow and clumsy efforts to handle her phone, typically when I must type instructions into the GPS while she drives. So I thought she’d get a grin out of the card. (She did, but only a small, forced one. Swing and a miss. Should’ve got her the other card that caught my eye.)

Now, any store-bought card is almost by definition mass-produced and impersonal, not qualities that lend themselves to the message, “I love you.” Still, this kind of card can’t simply come from anyone, nor go to anyone; it is “personalized” in the sense that it applies only to a narrow—or apparently narrow—segment of the population. Clearly there is a demand, beyond me alone, for such cards. Yet they are a distinct minority. Trite messages that could be exchanged between any lovers or would-be lovers dominate the shelves by a margin of 2-to-1 or more.

I’m curious how much that dominance reflects a lack of demand, which suggests an awful lot of people have a lame attitude toward the holiday, and how much of it reflects economics of scale. Sure, Hallmark can write joke cards speaking to small, even vanishingly small, segments of the population…but can they stock limited shelves so as to reach enough slim segments to cover all their bases, and recover the increased printing costs of a thousand special interest cards in place of a single generic one as well? Probably not. I understand greeting cards operate on a pretty slim margin: yes, every card sold at $2.95 a pop gives a huge return, but the vast majority of cards never get sold, and there isn’t much you can do to forge ahead of the competition in a saturated and low-entry-cost market.

Hence cards as humor: anyone can print “I love you,” but not everyone can make a decent joke out of the occasion—not when all the obvious jokes have been made a kragillion times—and even a moment’s humor can make a product stand out. I’m all in favor of more unusual cards. One of my favorites in the past few years was one that read “I’m so glad you came into my mouth.” Zing! Getting more diverse cards on the shelves would almost certainly mean ditching the trite, generic ones to make space, but honestly—would that be any loss at all?

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