The jolly and the lively

As the deadline for Christmas posting draws nigh again, Matthew Valentine comes over all festive as he checks out some of this year’s Christmas cards.

Companies which have slept through the summer seem to wake up for Christmas, suddenly launching bucketsful of Yuletide-flavoured brand extensions to tired lines in a bid to grab consumer cash.

Financially, this must be lucrative. Otherwise why would we see the same characters from films, cartoons and television popping up on cards year after year, looking the same as the rest of the year apart from a sprinkling of snow and a red hat.

Do poorly drawn pop-up cards featuring Loony Tunes characters wearing baubles really benefit the cartoon franchise? Many of the characters date back to the Forties. To some, they are a fondly-remembered part of childhood. Slapping them on a 1.99 Christmas card could surely do more harm to these characters than good.

Nick Park’s famous Wallace & Gromit characters seem in danger of overexposure, but it doesn’t appear to be harming merchandise sales. The duo are everywhere. Whether you love them or loathe them, you have to admit the merchandising quality is high.

Jodi Ferris, art director at Portico Designs (responsible for Wallace & Gromit and The Simpsons cards in the UK), says an understanding of the personality of the brand is essential for extensions like Christmas cards, and is aided by a close relationship with the licensor of the characters.

In the case of Wallace & Gromit, this is doubly important. Special models have to be made by creator Aardman Animations for each photo shoot, as no suitable drawings exist. “If you are a fan they really mean something to you. You don’t want to see that value taken away by poor representation,” Ferris says.

And she is unimpressed with the “add a reindeer” school of Christmas card design. “It’s important not to just take a Christmas image and put The Simpsons on it. It’s all about how The Simpsons would celebrate Christmas,” she says of the dysfunctional American sitcom family. A case of Simpsons first, Christmas later.

But a visit to your local card shop can be a dispiriting experience. Many card designers appear not to have learned these elemental lessons. And if some of the merchandising spin-off cards are unpleasant, most of those which are not based on familiar characters are even worse.

All the clichés are there, with gilt-effect edges, embossed gold leaf, rosy-cheeked Santas and snowmen. The “humorous” section is still full of the same cards featuring jokes about office parties, hangovers and flatulence that it always has been.

There are exceptions to the rule, but it can take a lot of shopping to find them. California-based Atlas Design has launched a range of parody cards, such as Martha Seward’s White Trash Christmas, which take a pleasingly jaundiced view of the festive season. Dark humour, involving various tragic accidents befalling Santa, is prevalent this year. The “add a reindeer” school of design has been given a twist: London is awash with kitsch visions of Elvis mounted as the fairy on top of Christmas trees. Now there’s something you don’t see every day.

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