Greeting cards: Individuality and authenticity in mass culture

Emily West, University of Pennsylvania


The greeting card is an under-examined form of mass media that represents some of the fundamental modern anxieties about the inauthenticity of living in a mass-mediated, consumer culture. Greeting cards bring mass production and interpersonal, emotional communication together, and are therefore a unique location to explore the contradictions of consumer culture. Field research with greeting card producers and consumers shows that the mass-produced nature of the greeting card is actively managed throughout its life cycle. The industry is aware of its image problem and goes to great effort in its communications with the public to deflect critiques of inauthenticity. They de-emphasize the industrial nature of their production in favor of an emotional, artistic model of creativity, and downplay their own cultural power by suggesting that they merely meet the demands of sovereign consumers. Hallmark, the largest greeting card company in America, aims for “universal specificity” in its products, meaning that while their cards must reflect cultural differences, human emotions and communication needs are fundamentally universal, a philosophy that not coincidentally rationalizes the domination of the greeting card market by just two companies. Many consumers wonder about the authenticity of industrialized sentiment and whether it threatens their individuality. Although greeting cards have a middlebrow image, card use is positively correlated with markers of high cultural capital such as level of education and interest in art and books. Taste conscious consumers express their distaste for mass culture through the kinds of cards they send, and the industry, including the major players like Hallmark and American Greetings, largely co-operate by producing “alternative” cards that announce their distance from traditional sentiment. Rather than focusing on aesthetic taste, fans of traditional sentiment draw on different models of communication and self-expression in explaining how they use greeting cards. They point to how the tangibility of the card indexes their labor and therefore serves as proof of caring, and how bringing the public sphere into a private exchange brings certainty and legitimacy to interpersonal communication. Although dominant models of communication focus on individuality and spontaneity, greeting card communication tends to operate according to a different, ritual logic.

Subject Area

Mass media|American studies|Womens studies|Design|Interior design

Recommended Citation

West, Emily, "Greeting cards: Individuality and authenticity in mass culture" (2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3152125.