The Tiniest Billboards: Stamps and Coins!

Now that the federal government of the United States has finalized its decision to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on its national health care initiative, it must confront a terribly vexing question:

How will it finance those expenditures?

The twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the national bail-out of the banking system, and the Great Recession of 2008 have driven America’s fiscal deficit to heights unseen since the Second World War. So where will it find the funds to finance national health care?

The answer, apparently, may be jingling in your pocket as you read this column. America will be using its own money as advertising billboards!

From Vacations to Sunshine

Feeling queasy about the prospect of splashing marketing messages across government properties? Not to worry; no one is (yet) proposing the conversion of the White House into a franchise for White Castle, or the Statute of Liberty into a billboard for Liberty Mutual. Nevertheless, state and national governments around the world have long treated much smaller properties as advertising spaces.

The state of Maine, for instance, has long declared its ocean shores to be Vacationland from the metallic faces of its automobile license plates. Florida has similarly announced itself to be the Sunshine State, and New Jersey the Garden State. Connecticut has raised the bar even farther, encouraging residents to pay a premium plate fee to showcase the state’s scenic lighthouses along its Long Island Sound shoreline.

Vacations! Sunshine! Beachfront lighthouses! These license plate images are also the scenes that grace the state tourism brochures that support huge regional industries. And thus these states have decided to extend their advertising campaigns through the properties of their departments of motor vehicles.

God Save The Queen!

The postage stamp has also been utilized to promote industry, though its long and storied history as a medium of currency and trade has somewhat restrained government from fully exploiting its commercial value. Postage stamps precede automobile license plates in our cultural history, having been first introduced in Great Britain under the reign of Queen Victoria.

Since Victoria’s time, governments have often placed the images of their heads of state on their postage stamps. But recently, cognizant of the revenues that could be earned by selling stamps directly to American stamp collectors, tiny nations like Chad are now placing the images of American presidents on their national stamps. And the United States Postal Service is now issuing vanity stamps that are targeted towards specific industries, such as the revered postage stamp of the profession of Certified Public Accountancy.

Because stamps are issued by federal governments and carry clearly defined notations of value, they have been used throughout history as proxies for coinage and currency. In fact, postal systems in Germany and other nations maintain a tradition of managing savings accounts, issuing money orders, and performing other retail banking functions. Perhaps this is why the drive for advertising space has now gravitated from the postage stamp to the currency.

Yosemite on a Quarter

Of the four American currency coins in widespread use, it is the quarter dollar (as opposed to the penny, nickel, or dime) that has been most frequently utilized for marketing messages. Perhaps its sheer size — after all, it is far larger than its three fellow coins — has made it conducive for holding complex images.

Although George Washington remains firmly entrenched on the quarter’s head, the traditional American eagle symbol has frequently been removed from its tail. In its place, for a period of time surrounding the Bicentennial Year Celebrations of 1976, was placed the promotional image of a Revolutionary patriot marching to music.

More recently, the United States Mint announced a decade long campaign to place images from each State of the Union on the tail side of the quarter. And finally, last week, they announced plans to continue that campaign with a series of images that promote the American system of national parklands.

Will these images simply be designed to honor the natural wonders of the United States, or will they be positioned to serve as tiny, pocket sized billboard extensions of the advertising campaigns of the National Park Service? Take a moment to consider how closely the marketing campaign reflects the promotional messages of the National Park Service, and decide for yourself how the United States government is likely to utilize these quarter coins!

Melting Away

Nevertheless, before you decide to congratulate the government for its business acumen in placing marketing messages on its stamps and coinage, you might pause for a moment and consider the limited futures of these icons of currency values. Postage volume, after all, is melting away as Americans transition from paper correspondence to email communications, and currency itself is declining in use as debit and credit cards become ubiquitous for even the smallest of transactions.

Will we even be using stamps and coins in the future to facilitate our business transactions? Perhaps so, and perhaps not … but if we do, we’ll likely need to become more accustomed to viewing tiny billboards on their faces!