Magazine | November 17, 2014, Issue

Jurassic Cards

(Getty Images/Josa Carlos Pires Pereira)
On our perdurable, vestigial introduction ritual

The business card seems to be surviving the speedy displacement and long death of print media, but nobody knows exactly why. Already a relic before the 20th century began, an object that even in its supposed heyday was at best a bookmark and at worst a moldy leaf in some dust-clotted pile in a desk drawer, the business card, mute confetto of a poorer time, not only has endured but is selling better than ever.

Why? Why do printers still move around $800 million in business cards every year?

And why are the cards getting better? The ritual of the business card was travestied in a passage from Bret Easton Ellis’s notorious 1991 novel American Psycho: “I pull it out of my gazelleskin wallet (Barney’s, $850) and slap it on the table, waiting for reactions,” violently deranged narrator Patrick Bateman confides. “That’s bone,” he points out to his yuppie rivals. “And the lettering is something called Silian Rail.”

The card one-upmanship that follows is hilarious: “A brief spasm of jealousy courses through me. . . . I clench my fist as Van Patten says, smugly, ‘Eggshell with Romalian type . . .’” A Wall Street master of the universe counters with: “Raised lettering, pale nimbus white . . .” Another card is so beautiful Bateman fingers it, “for the sensation the card gives off to the pads of my fingers.”

But a fresh reading of the business-card passage, set during the late 1980s, reveals something striking: All these fancy business cards are basically variants of black printing on white paper.

Almost nobody settles for something that primitive anymore. Mid-level Capitol Hill staffers are issued pearl business cards featuring raised printing and a gold-leaf federal coat of arms, with all 13 of the eagle’s arrows detailed and “E Pluribus Unum” in tiny but legible lettering. A D.C.-area automotive-repair chain issues employees laminated cards with front-and-back graphics of the company logo in four colors. Real-estate agents everywhere dispense full-color cards with at least half a dozen slugs of contact information and photographic head shots. In the entertainment business, even flunkies give out odd-sized cards with matte finishes, glossy printing on both sides, and plentiful graphic elements. In 2014, any slob in a smelly T-shirt can carry a billfold of business cards nicer than what was available to the highest fliers of the Iacocca age.

“Business cards in general are if anything increasing, not decreasing,” Mitch Evans, vice president and senior consultant at the National Association for Printing Leadership, tells National Review. This is despite a steady and pronounced drop in the printing industry’s annual revenues, which now stand at $80 billion, since the beginning of the 21st century, Evans adds.

Edward Gleeson, director of economics and market research at Printing Industries of America, says 82 member companies in a recent survey reported increased demand for business cards — one of a handful of services for which printers did report better demand. (Printing-industry experts estimate that business cards account for approximately 1 percent of that $80 billion total.) In a recent online poll by a Fox TV station in Cleveland, 80 percent of 475 voters answered “Yes” to the question “Are business cards still relevant?”

Vincent Mallardi, chairman of the Printing Brokerage/Buyers Association, scoffs at the idea that it’s time to eulogize the business card. North American orders for business-card-quality index paper, he points out, topped 6.8 million metric tons last year.

“The paper industry is finding one of the biggest increases is in orders of 67-pound index paper, which is used for business cards,” Mallardi tells National Review. “The Internet is crowded. Response rates are very, very low. People who are trying to get businesses up and running need to be able to communicate in many different ways.”

#page#Still, the business card’s survival seems bizarre in a contemporary communications environment. Almost every means of exchanging contact information is better than the business card. In fact, much media attention on business cards these days concerns the digital universe’s Rube Goldberg efforts to scan the printed data of a paper card into a form that we actually use these days: infinitely reproducible and transmissible digits.

“Five apps to tame your business card chaos,” promises Jack Wallen of TechRepublic.com.

“9 Apps That Make Certain Nobody Ever Again Loses Your Paper Business Card,” counteroffers Entrepreneur.com’s John Boitnott.

“In 2014, it’s surprising that with everything going digital, we’re still using paper to exchange contact details,” Ran Heimann, chief executive of Haystack, a startup based in Brisbane, Australia, that offers an app that automatically updates phone, e-mail, and social-media databases, marvels in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald.

Why are these forward-looking folks still grappling with a paper form? The business card is an example of how industrial production can achieve NASA’s vision of a three-legged stool — faster, cheaper, better — but only after the product itself is obsolete.

Rodger Cosgrove, a Southern California marketing entrepreneur, explains how the cost has dropped. “The advent of digital printing enables a printer to print for a penny or two apiece. I just saw an ad: $9.95 for 450 business cards,” Cosgrove says. “The Internet has changed the business a lot, because one guy anywhere can get 100 orders, and lay out that order in such a way that he is making a plate for 100 orders at a time.”

That has helped the market for cheaper cards, but the Patrick Batemans of 2014 can engage in even more spectacular business-card arms races. “People are putting QR codes on them, bar codes,” notes Mallardi. “It used to be the back of a business card was just to write some girl’s phone number. We’re seeing tent cards that you can fold: A lot of people can’t say all they want to say on a regular business card. Customers are getting into die-cutting to make a window. There is also variable coding that gives texture, so if you’re in the lumber business it can have a background that looks like wood.”

Thus the ritual of the business card, that professional-class tea ceremony, lives on: the conference-table blackjack; the group-intro legerdemain; the discreet disposal of an unwanted contact.

“If you go overseas and don’t have a business card to give, you’re an ass,” says Mallardi. “In Europe or the Orient, if you don’t have a business card to hand out and a gift — a bottle of Scotch or something from Tiffany’s — you’re a bore.”

In another masterpiece of business-card literature, Alan Moore and Mark Beyer’s 1991 comic The Bowing Machine, the business card’s gradations of feigned humility or overeager garishness figure into a struggle between mid-level Japanese executives. “These big men, their approval, this was everything,” the nameless narrator writes. “I’d hoard their business cards, where information content falls as owner’s prospects rise. Truly important cards bear only names: no address, no number you should call.”

Maybe as the cards get cheaper, that struggle for contact will get more intense. The business card allows a passive-aggressive choreography of reaching out to another person or not, of allowing that person to reach out to you or not, that can’t be reproduced in another medium. Is there any surer mark of having achieved high status than to employ a person who receives business cards on your behalf?

Eventually Bateman loses this game. He is defeated by a card he can’t move. “My card lies on the table, ignored next to an orchid in a blue glass vase,” he says. “Gently I pick it up and slip it, folded, back into my wallet.”

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