Hallmark Card Sharks

How an early embrace of national advertising put Hallmark in the pole position of holiday memories.

By Andrew Egan

Today in Tedium: People hate advertising. Year after year, advertising professionals are routinely cited in Gallup surveys of dishonorable professions. Ask users how to improve almost any entertainment experience and removing ads is the most common suggestion. Near universal disdain for advertising belies how massive the industry really is. With billions spent on advertising annually, companies will pay a premium to get their products onto your favorite content. But can an ad agency be so effective as to get people to pay for their ads? Or at the very least, not mind the ads in the first place? Today’s Tedium is looking at Foote, Cone, and Belding, a legendary advertising agency that helped a greeting card company transform into a media juggernaut with the power of Christmas. — Andrew @ Tedium

A quick shout-out to Salem-Keizer Proletariat, who became Ernie’s 3,000th Mastodon follower earlier this week. Be sure to check out their Substack, which focuses on working class issues around Salem, Oregon.


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The amount of money spent annually on advertising. This number represents the whole range of advertising mediums, like billboards, TV/radio/podcast commercials, etc. To be as pervasive as modern advertising is, vast armies of creative professionals toil to create meaningful connections between consumers and products. How advertisers developed successful strategies for pitching products in the 20th century is an interesting study in mass manipulation.

Advertising 1800s

“A London Street Scene,” circa 1835, by artist John Orlando Perry. (Wikimedia Commons)

Massive ad agencies have been around a long time

It is kind of mind boggling how many people work in advertising. Just the “big six” advertising agencies employ more than 400,000 people. They also account for about a third of global advertising revenue. Companies take advertising seriously because they take their brands very seriously. Established brands are basically guaranteed money makers as long as quality and good will are maintained.

“Brand equity” is the phrase industry professionals use to describe a brand that has positive public perception compared to less well-known alternatives that are often less expensive. The gold standard for “brand equity” is probably Coca-Cola, whose signature product is so iconic they literally “debranded” it with their 2013 “Share a Coke” campaign that featured common names rather than the iconic Coca-Cola logo. Of course, advertising wasn’t always so sophisticated.

James Jem White

A portrait of James “Jem” White, one of the first ad agency execs. (via Artware Fine Art)

The first modern advertising agency was ostensibly established by William Taylor in 1786 but this business largely acted as a broker between companies and UK newspapers. James “Jem” White established what we would recognize as the first creative advertising agency in that his London business crafted campaigns and ads for their clients. But it was George Reynell, who had previously worked for the London Gazette, who would establish a full service agency in 1812 that, remarkably, still operates today though largely focusing on legal notice advertising.

Drink An Orange

Sunkist’s “Drink an Orange” campaign, an early advertising success. (The Saturday Evening Post/Google Books)

By the 20th century, advertising had developed into a reasonably complex industry that was expanding into the first coordinated national advertising campaigns. Tobacco was an early innovator in advertising, even pioneering the concept of brand names for otherwise generic products. It was in this period that marketing budgets for soft drinks and toys, among other products, began to explode. Manufacturers of goods that previously had regional markets realized that advertising could create national demand. An excellent example of this can be seen with (one of many) “fathers of modern advertising” Albert Lasker, who is credited with generating demand for orange juice at a time when the larger citrus industry was languishing. For whatever reason, his “Drink an orange” campaign helped Sunkist Growers Inc shed excess inventory and made orange juice a staple of the American breakfast.

How exactly Lasker developed his advertising philosophy is fascinating and would change the industry. The story goes that a young Lasker was working at Chicago advertising firm Lord & Thomas when a Canadian copywriter named John E. Kennedy (no relation) randomly stopped by their offices with some unsolicited advice. The advice, that advertising was “salesmanship in print,” was revolutionary to the industry. Previously, ads were pretty matter-of-fact with product descriptions and the cost. Kennedy’s insight was that advertising should also be persuasive. This approach would change the fortunes of companies. One washing machine maker tripled its business with Lasker’s persuasive advertising. By 1906, at just age 26, Lasker was head of the country’s largest advertising agency.

Lasker was an industry legend when he retired in 1942, selling the agency to a trio that would continue the tradition of persuasive advertising, albeit with their own emotional touch. And they helped create an unlikely media giant in the process.


The amount of money Hallmark Cards was reported to have spent with their advertising agency in 1981. At this point, they had been with the same agency since 1944 and the competition to land the Hallmark account was followed heavily by mainstream press at the time. In the end, the incumbent lost out. But we’ll get to that.

Hallmark Cards

(via the Hallmark website)

What happens when an ad agency and a greeting card company make a TV show?

The beginnings of Hallmark Cards are humbly inauspicious, like many great American business stories. In 1910, Joyce Clyde “J.C.” Hall arrived in Kansas City, Missouri as an 18-year old with little more than a box of postcards. In 1915, his brother Rollie joined the business. Later that year, a fire destroyed the Hall brothers’ inventory, leaving the duo with some $17,000 in debt.

This disaster also proved somewhat fortuitous as the brothers realized the need to manufacture their own greeting cards. Oddly enough, Hallmark’s greatest innovation has nothing to do with greeting cards. In a particularly busy Christmas season in 1917, the brother’s ran out of solid color wrappings that were traditionally used for presents. Out of desperation, the brothers used the lining of fancy French envelopes to wrap presents and, in the process, “invented” modern wrapping paper.

The innovations kept coming. J.C. became obsessed with the idea of the “hallmark”, the brand that goldsmiths would add to their creations but also became a shorthand for quality. In 1928, the company began branding its greeting cards with the name Hallmark, along with a crown logo. The same year, the company became the first to advertise greeting cards nationally. Just four years later, Hallmark would create the first of its kind licensing deal with Disney. They also claim credit for the modern method of displaying greeting cards so that people could read them independently, which they call “Eye-Vision” and have an actual patent for. Previously, the cards had been kept in drawers.

An early acolyte of national advertising, J.C. Hall embraced the potential of radio by sponsoring “Tony Wons’ Radio Scrapbook” and “Radio Reader’s Digest”. When executives at CBS decided to end their affiliation with Reader’s Digest (in part because they weren’t actually affiliated with the magazine), Hallmark stepped in. “Hallmark Playhouse” premiered in 1948 and ran until 1953. The show was an anthology series featuring well-known stories from classic literature performed by major Hollywood stars of the era. While popular, radio seemed to limit the full brand potential for Hallmark productions. This was something very clear to Hallmark’s relatively new ad agency, Foote, Cone, and Belding.

In 1942, Albert Lasker retired and sold Lord & Thomas to three of his executives, Emerson Foote, Fairfax Cone, and Don Belding, who renamed the agency after themselves as the original firm had to be dissolved for “tax purposes”. They promptly secured even more blue chip clients like Dial Soap and, in 1944, Hallmark Cards. This partnership led to one of the most widely known slogans of the mid-20th century, “When you care enough to send the very best.” Interestingly, both FCB and Hallmark lay claim to its creation in one form or another. In any case, the agency helped Hallmark cement themselves as the standard for American greeting cards.

Executives at FCB realized the potential in “Hallmark Playhouse”, which would be called “The Hallmark Hall of Fame” in later iterations. The agency was “instrumental” in helping switch the format to television. According to Hallmark’s corporate page, however, NBC approached Hallmark about sponsoring an original opera for television. J.C. Hall liked the idea of sponsoring a show to thank people who purchased Hallmark cards for Christmas. However, executives at Foote, Cone, and Belding were remarkably hands-on with “Hallmark Hall of Fame” productions, with Belding himself running an in-house production department for the program.

“Forgotten Children,” a Hallmark Hall of Fame kinescope from 1952.

This was the first time a company produced a television program in order to promote its products, which would be a common practice throughout the 1950s. The success of the first production encouraged follow ups with adaptations of Shakespeare and Agatha Christie being especially popular. Initially limited to adaptations of classic literature and theater, Hallmark began producing original stories, at the behest of FCB, in the later 1950s.

“Hallmark Hall of Fame” continued airing on NBC until 1979, when low ratings led the company to move to CBS. The show bounced between CBS, PBS, and ABC. In 1981, Foote, Cone, and Belding lost the Hallmark account after 37 years together. By then, two-thirds of the agency’s original founders had passed away. Emerson Foote had left in 1964 because he disagreed with the agency continuing to help advertise cigarettes.

When Young & Rubicam took over the Hallmark account in 1981, they were explicitly tasked with, “product advertising on network TV and for advertising to promote the Hallmark Hall of Fame television series.” Hallmark had long figured out how to make its signature productions; it didn’t need an outside agency to assist any more. If you need proof, the series aired for nearly 60 years and won a stunning 81 Emmy awards.

But the next iteration of Hallmark media would be found away from traditional networks and in the still developing world of cable television.


The number of users for the Hallmark Holiday Movie app, which helps viewers guide their way through the company’s latest slate of seasonal fare. Hallmark dominates certain cable TV demographics in the October to December months. The Hallmark Channel often leads some prime-time slots in terms of total viewers and households watching. In short, a whole lot of people watch the Hallmark Channel. And the company wants to expand beyond the holidays.

From an advertising-driven program to a friggin’ channel. That’s the evolution we’re talking about here.

Hallmark might be one of the most successful production companies of all time

While Hallmark’s network television series was chugging along in the 1990s, the company got the idea to expand into cable. Hallmark created Crown Media in 1991 and purchased a significant stake in a religious cable network. By 2001, Crown had taken full control of the channel and rebranded it as The Hallmark Channel.

Early content for the channel included a heavy dose of ‘Hallmark Hall of Fame” along with some independently produced original content. Executives at Hallmark and Crown began “leaning into Christmas,” according to a New Yorker article on the channel. It worked, and the channel began to produce content around other holidays, like Valentine’s Day. Though Hallmark has been steadily producing content, their flagship series has been left in limbo. There hasn’t been a new “Hallmark Hall of Fame” production since 2019 and it doesn’t look like any have been announced for future release. The program had been in trouble for years, even leaving network television for the first time in 60 years. Since 2014, the show has aired exclusively on the Hallmark Channel.

One of MANY Candace Cameron Bure-starring Hallmark Channel films.

The “Hall of Fame” franchise might have petered out but its influence on the current content produced by Hallmark is pretty clear. In 2022, the Hallmark Channel released an astonishing 40 Christmas movies featuring well-known stars of yesteryear, like Lacey Chabert (from Mean Girls) and Candace Cameron Bure (from Full House). The programming is “wholesome” in the traditional family values sense with low-grade stakes. Even original content has the hint of the familiar. Production values are streamlined and low cost but the end result doesn’t look cheap. (Though they arguably drive Dan Harmon crazy sometimes.)

Hallmark has long prided itself on quality, whether with its greeting cards or TV productions. In this regard, quality doesn’t quite mean good or bad. It’s Hallmark quality, full of a particular kind of sentiment that appeals to roughly 1.2 million viewers during prime time in 2022. It’s the eleventh most popular channel on television.

It’s kind of funny to consider the traditions surrounding our holidays and festivities. As a child, symbols of the season like Christmas trees and menorahs and cookies and presents seemed so permanent, as if they had always been tradition. The reality, of course, is that traditions evolve. Hell, even modern wrapping paper isn’t all that old—and of course, its modern form was developed by Hallmark.

The Hallmark Channel has managed to tap into a sense of familiarity and permanence, despite barely being more than 20 years old. The legacy of Foote, Cone, and Belding goes much further than Hallmark. For some ambitious advertising executives and a greeting card company, the continuing impact Hallmark productions have on the holiday season is an impressive accomplishment.


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Andrew Egan

Your time was just wasted by Andrew Egan

Andrew Egan is yet another writer living in New York City. He’s previously written for Forbes Magazine and ABC News. You can find his terrible website at CrimesInProgress.com.

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