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Free Rack Advertising Postcards

The idea for free rack advertising postcards in the United States was based on their earlier use in Europe. Assorted advertising postcards were displayed in wall racks in trendy big city establishments, where they could be freely acquired by patrons. The postcards in the racks were replenished and changed regularly.

The advertising on the postcards was targeted mainly at young single adults. The ads included nationally distributed products, social causes, cultural institutions, local events, and the sites where the racks were displayed. Places where the racks were placed included restaurants, bars, theaters, health clubs, bookstores, and music stores.

The postcards were approximately 4-1/4" X 6" and were made with heavier card stock than most other postcards. They had a smooth surface, but did not have a glossy coating. The card designs were usually high quality, often similar to glossy magazine advertising or posters. Movie ads and magazine covers, however, tended to look too cluttered when reduced to postcard size.

Most of the free rack advertising postcards were distributed by two companies, Max Racks and GoCard. Max Racks, which was founded in 1994, was initially the largest and best established company. GoCard was formed a little later when several entrepreneurs with similar businesses joined together to compete with Max Racks.

A third free card company, HotStamp, offered similar advertising postcards, but placed most of its racks on college campuses. HotStamp was acquired by GoCard in 2001. That acquisition almost doubled GoCARD's operations in 19 cities to over 4,000 indoor advertising displays, making GoCARD twice the size of Max Racks (source).

Tower Records distributed free rack advertising postcards in its stores. Those postcards promoted Tower itself as well as other products. A Tower logo appeared on the back of the card, along with a Max Racks or GoCard logo.

The rack postcard companies grew rapidly at first, but by 2000 the postcards' advertising effectiveness was being questioned. At that time, more than 65 million Max Racks postcards each year were removed from the company's racks in 17 top U.S. markets (source). An article in The Wall Street Journal asked "If it doesn't actually sell anything, is it still an ad?" There was concern that the ads might be too subtle.

GoCard became part of GoGorilla Media, a newly launched guerrilla-marketing company, in 2001. The GoGorilla Media website does not have current information about GoCards rack cards. The only mentions of GoCards that I could find on the website are near the end of their Media Kit where GoCards are described as "the distribution of advertising postcards through one-pocket countertop displays," and in a 2009 post about rack cards on their blog. Both GoCard and Max Racks free rack postcard advertising seem to have faded away by 2009.

A 2006 GoCard YouTube video shows how the rack postcards were distributed and has interviews with customers at a distribution venue.

I wonder what has happened to all the millions of rack postcards. There currently aren't many to be found at postcard collector shows or on eBay. Are there many collections and caches of the postcards stored away, or did most of the cards just end up in the trash?

My personal favorite rack advertising postcards are the self-promotional ones promoting the card companies themselves and novelties. I also especially like the cards with holiday themes, striking designs, and/or clever concepts.

Here are some of my favorites:


Self-promotion, GoCard

This next two postcards are part of a series of self-promotion postcards featuring parodies of famous brand advertising, in these instances Hellman's Real Mayonnaise and Heineken Beer.

Self-promotion, GoCard

Self-promotion, GoCard

Easter theme, Self-promotion, GoCard

Thanksgiving theme, self-promotion, GoCard

Max Racks' Holiday Cube card for New Year's 1999 is scored so that the Holiday Cube can be punched out and assembled.

Holiday theme, self-promotion, Max Racks

Valentine theme, Makostudio, Max Racks/Tower

Tower Records, GoCard/Tower

"Fly" and "Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band" album on RYKO, GoCard/Tower

Marvel Comics, GoCard/Tower

Saucony Running Shoes, by Max Racks/Tower

Guess Jeans, by Max Racks

Absolut Vodka was well known for its creative print advertising campaign featuring Absolut bottles. On the Absolut Stirring card, there is a bottle-shaped mouse hole in the wall behind the Christmas tree. The idea was based on the line from The Night Before Christmas poem, "Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse." There were many Absolut Vodka advertising postcards both in the U. S. and other countries, and the Absolut ads are especially popular among collectors.

Christmas Theme, Absolut Vodka, by Max Racks

Chianti Ristorante e Cucina, a Los Angeles restaurant founded in 1938, by GoCard

The next postcard features a July, 1958 Playboy Magazine cover. Art Paul, Playboy's art director, created a a Rabbit Head wallpaper effect over and behind a Playboy model.

Playboy Magazine, by Max Racks

Illustration © 2002 Elise Primavera and Harcourt, Inc.
Auntie Claus and the Key to Christmas book, by Max Racks

You can actualy play Spin the Bottle with the next postcard. The bottle is attached to the postcard with a metal fastener that allows the bottle to rotate.

Snapple Iced Tea, by HotStamp




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