A couple of weeks ago I was reading an article about Michael Eisner’s life after Disney in the Sunday NY Times and I came across a marketing gimmick that surprised me.
As you may or many not know, Eisner is the owner of Topps, the trading card company. The article mentioned an upcoming series of event-worn Topps Baseball cards, which are made by attaching pieces of a baseball uniform to trading cards. These event-worn cards are very popular and highly collectible, precisely because only a few cards out of the whole set are actually event-worn cards. (The practice is far from new — in 1993 Press Pass started the category of event-used cards by offering redemption cards for NASCAR race-used lug nuts. Upper Deck issued the first cards with pieces of game used jerseys attached, Press Pass countered with race-worn fire suits and pieces of burnt rubber attached to the cards, and the arms race was on.)
What bothered me about this was that the uniforms Topps was cutting into tiny little pieces this time belonged to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
And it didn’t just bother me. Apparently, it bothers Mr. Eisner as well.
The article says that “Eisner, a serious art collector, is openly uneasy about the endeavor, but Scott Silverstein, the chief executive of Topps, explains that this gimmick is a big moneymaker.”
I don’t care what you do with a piece of a used rubber tire, Jeff Gordon’s racing suits, Kobe Bryant’s jersey, or even Andy Roddick’s jock strap. There are plenty of them, and you can always make more.
Some may say, “One man’s history is another man’s product line,” and in this case, unfortunately, they’d be right. Misguided, but right.
Some may argue that it’s extending the franchise, so to speak, democratizing the ownership of the collectible. Many more people can own a piece of the Babe and revel in his history, this way, than just the single collector owning the uniform. (Of course, frequently those collectors loan those items to museums, so many can benefit.)
Following that same line of thought, though, why don’t we grind up the original Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, sprinkle them into a giant milkshake, and let everyone in America drink some, thereby allowing all of us to share more deeply in our nation’s most important memorabilia.
But c’mon, Scott! Surely you could think of a couple of other ways to use these rare and historic uniforms to drive sales besides just shredding them.
Here’s just one from a friend of mine: How about putting 10 “golden” tickets into packs of baseball cards? The winners get flown to the new Yankee Stadium for the drawing, where two of them get to win the unshredded uniforms, which are then placed on temporary display at the stadium or in Cooperstown or the Smithsonian or someplace where the public can enjoy them. It’s a prize that can easily drive sales. The winners get a historic plaque, a trip onto the field at Yankee Stadium, and two of them get a valuable investment they can pass on to future generations. Plenty of sizzle and sales, with history intact.
Besides, in today’s collectible card industry, what’s so unique about one more set of cards with a sliver of fabric in them? And why stop with Ruth and Gehrig’s uniforms? Why not buy the Shroud of Turin and cut it up? I bet that would sell some cards.
Finally, have you even considered the potential for backlash? What if baseball fans and card collectors are so appalled at the lack of respect for history and tradition (which is, after all, an important part of being a baseball fan and a baseball card collector), that rather than flock to stores to buy the cards, they boycott them instead?
Mr. Eisner, I’m betting that you’ve done pretty well in your career, trusting your gut. Why are you surrendering your integrity to your CEO and his promise that if you just trust him and do what he says, everything will work out great in the end? After all, John McCain pretty much did the same thing with his integrity and it didn’t work out so well for him.
Look, I’m a marketing guy, and I’ve been party to my share of promotional innovation, especially during my years at Marvel. But there’s a line between leveraging content to engage fan interest and exploiting it in an attempt to sell product. And in my opinion, this crosses that line.
But maybe I’m wrong, and I just don’t get it. So if that’s the case, can someone please explain to me why it’s become acceptable to destroy history in the name of making a buck?