Coming to a birthday card near you: Obama vs. Romney

Whether it’s for a few months or the next eight years, Mitt Romney is about to hit the birthday party circuit. He won’t be doing magic tricks or twisting balloons into the shapes of animals, but as the Republican presidential nominee, he’s earned a starring role on greeting cards.

“Another birthday, and you still look like a million bucks,” Romney says, basking in the glow of a candlelit inferno in his Hallmark Cards debut. “Trust me. I know what a million bucks looks like.”

From a mainstream-marketing perspective, the class-warfare joke is a political bull’s-eye. It’s cute and disarming enough to get a smirk out of wealthy Republicans, while for the Occupy Wall Street crowd it could channel sarcasm.

Romney’s other Hallmark cameo this summer: he and President Obama, facing each other on the debate stage, the mood jovial. “Finally!” the caption blares. “Something Democrats and Republicans can agree on!”

Inside, the political rivals give each other an affectionate fist-bump. “You’re getting pretty damn old,” goes the punch line.

“It’s always pretty fun to see how the election year is going to shape up,” says Julie McFarland, Hallmark’s creative director in charge of humor themes. “Figuring out who was going to be the Republican candidate was interesting this year. We had a few side-bets going in the office. Rick Santorum’s sweater-vests would have been fun to draw — and we would have had a lot of fun with Newt’s name.”

According to the Greeting Card Association, the trade group accounting for 95 percent of the industry, there are more than 3,000 U.S. greeting card publishers, ranging from individual studios to multinational corporations. Brands owned by Hallmark (Shoebox) and American Greetings (Carlton Cards/Recycled Paper Greetings) dominate retail shelf space. 

Although political-humor cards represent a tiny fraction of new releases each year, Recycled Paper Greetings is now preparing a major promotional push for the genre with a 6-foot-high patriotic “Election 2012” display to showcase up to 18 different cards. RPG is simultaneously courting political cheerleaders and hecklers in both parties. An “I (Heart) Barack” card is on the same rack as a wishful-thinking “1-20-2013 Obama’s Last Day” birthday card. The latter is inscribed, “Sending you HAPPY thoughts as you celebrate your big day!”

“We try to be an equal-opportunity offender,” explains RPG’s Graham Webb, senior director of creative and product management. “A consumer might occasionally respond negatively to an anti-Republican-themed card that he or she happens to read, but may not see that three pockets down there is an equally offensive anti-Democratic card.”

Balancing out the “Obama’s Last Day” card is one in which Romney tries to dispel the notion he is “out of touch” with the average American. The punch line is that he wishes you “Merry Christmas” on your birthday. The company is also selling retro-style political slogan cards with hokey but supportive messages: “Keep Calm and Vote for Rom” and “Keep Calma and Vote Obama.”

Measuring the mood of voters by greeting-card sales is hardly an exact science, but Webb thinks it is more than a coincidence that one of American Greetings’s best-selling political cards features “Butt Crack Guy.”

A variation of the classic plumber’s-crack gag with a patriotic spin, the card depicts a hairy middle-age guy in skimpy star-spangled shorts that reveal a tad too much posterior cleavage. He’s standing before the U.S. Capitol Building, which sets up the joke: “Birthdays are like political parties. Neither one is what they’re cracked up to be.”

Still, while American Greetings might think of itself as an “equal-opportunity offender,” staying in Wal-Mart and Target for the long term requires a more restrained level of irreverence. For New Jersey-based NobleWorks Cards, which caters mostly to novelty gift shops and independent bookstores, butt jokes are only the beginning.

“Does the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy Make My Ass Look Fat?” is a popular Hillary Clinton theme, while the “Baracky Horror Picture Show” card has a photo illustration of the president stuffed into a corset, high heels and a garter belt.

Shoebox once made a Halloween-themed card with Bill and Hillary Clinton ringing doorbells for candy, making an oblique reference to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “Well, that depends on what the meaning of ‘treat’ is,” a grinning Bill says.

That’s the kind of subtlety that NobleWorks avoids, according to publisher Ron Kanfi, who sells one card advocating that the official presidential seal be replaced with a condom — along with five metaphors for the government screwing the public. 

“With the major retailers, three complaints get your card yanked from the shelves,” he says. “Our motto is ‘If they can’t take a joke, eff them!’ ”

Indeed, the F-word is the basis for one of the company’s major card lines, “F--k Cancer,” which shatters the whispering “thinking of you” tone of the Get Well Soon genre. 

One of the company’s more controversial cards shows Obama starting a speech with an apology: “Sorry I’m late. I couldn’t get a cab.” 

“It’s not a racist joke, but it is a joke about racism,” Kanfi says. “Obviously, getting a taxi is not an issue for the president, but we’re commenting on how this kind of discrimination sadly exists. We have no political agenda. Our only rule is if we think it’s funny, print it.

“I would hope that President Obama would think our cards were funny if he ever saw them,” he adds. “But I also sometimes wonder if I have an FBI file.”