We should all do our best to avoid ridiculously easy targets, shooting fish in a barrel, taking potshots at self-evidently silly institutions and practices, ridiculing the ostentatiously anachronistic, or otherwise heaping disdain on the habitually outmoded, inefficient, and obviously replaceable.
Still, I have to write about the US Postal Service, because this is just too much.
I have to pause before even saying this.
Here is it: the Post Office is introducing new scratch-and-sniff stamps. Now, it is actually possible that you, dear reader, are too young to remember this olfactory technology. It was invented in the 1960s by the 3M corporation, almost accidentally (as with many things). The goal was to find a better way to trap ink in small packets for photocopy in a process called “microencapsulation.” But it also turned out to trap smells, which is pretty great.
Smell Your Magazine
Perfume companies discovered this, and found an amazing use. They were able to embed the smell of their product in magazine ads, giving a reason for people not only to buy the perfume but even to buy the magazine. It was strangely thrilling and irresistible. The company Giorgio turned a $6 million investment in ads into $100 million in revenue. It completely changed the way perfume was marketed.
The Times reported from 1988:
Such fragrance strips, bearing those almost invisible bands of chemicals, have revolutionized the global fragrance industry in recent years. They have inspired thousands of pages of lucrative new advertising in magazines and attracted millions of newly stimulated customers to dozens of new and established fragrances. But this intrusive marketing ploy has, simultaneously, revolted a few million other souls who don’t want the pages of their magazines smelling like the back of someone’s ear.
Wait, What Is a Stamp?
Well, it took thirty years but now the Post Office is putting this into its stamps. Now, for younger readers, a “stamp” is the government-printed square that serves as a kind of proxy for money that allows a government worker to carry a packet from one box to another. If you don’t have a stamp, it won’t be mailed. So, even today, people buy them to mail letters.
Oh, and letters are what arrive in a mailbox that is attached to your address. The “mailbox” is the thing the managers assigned you when you moved into your apartment that you might have checked just before your lease ran out and found it stuffed full of five pounds of advertising flyers plus one jury summons.
Under American law, the government officially owns your mailbox. And only government can deliver what’s called “first-class mail,” which means an envelope of a certain size delivered from one box to another.
I know it’s all rather complicated and makes no sense in times when enterprise has proven itself capable of delivering every form of message imaginable in every conceivable form, and everyone knows that if you absolutely need to be sure that a physical letter gets somewhere by a certain time, you go straight to many market-based carriers.
Why Does It Persist?
It’s not clear at all what point the Postal Service serves. Still, it exists and exists, losing money year after year. Amazon has found a purpose for it to deliver packages at cut-rate prices. Even then, Amazon is developing its own package-delivery service to cover last-mile delivery. In a couple of years, it will probably do without that entirely, especially if the president gets his way and raises postal rates.
But back to these stamps that you scratch and sniff. They are pictures of fruit-flavored popsicles. You scratch them and release the smell. But here is what is strange about this. A major reason why anyone might still send a private letter today is precisely associated with spraying on some cologne or perfume to do what digital media cannot do: tap into the extremely powerful sense of smell that can create or recreate whole worlds in our minds.
This is something the sender can do. It is not for the stamp to do. Maybe this would have been a fun thing to try back in 1970, but back then the Post Office was still attached to the idea that you should lick the back of stamps. They only adopted the auto-stick method into the 2000s.
Truly, this is nothing against Magrikie Berg, the South African artist who drew them. They are very pretty, and she obviously has loads of talent. The “art director” of the Post Office (nice gig!) picked her to draw the stamps. And she is probably the right one for the job.
There is just a symbol here that reminds us all about public institutions: they are living in the past. The way past. This is not innovation. Or at least: this is not where the energies of innovation should be placed.
Most of all, it is not at all clear why this institution needs to exist at all.
But please consider, my friends, just how hugely important the Post Office has been in the history of political economy. One hundred years ago, the post office was once the pride of government partisans all over the world.
Vladimir Lenin in 1917 brushed off the whole problem of organizing production under socialism (not that he thought much about it) with a simple formula. He wrote that he would “organize the whole economy on the lines of the postal service…all under the control and leadership of the armed proletariat.”
Problem solved. But not really. This whole model of political economy ended in disaster, and the post offices of the world are like the last of the dinosaurs roaming the earth long after evolution selected against their existence.
In fact, its obsolescence isn’t modern. Lysander Spooner started his own postal service in the middle of the 19th century and was shut down by force.
Yet even now, in the age of instant message everything, the Postal Service is not ready to go off quietly into the night. How long can it last? Free enterprise will continue to innovate even as government becomes ever less capable of meeting anyone’s needs. What happens, for example, if the bulk mailers discover no one cares anymore, that it is not financially advantageous for them to do what they do?
At some point, and that day can’t come too soon, its anachronistic services will be buried in the rubbish of its own irrelevance. It will be the stuff of memory, not just the trucks, the mail boxes, the uniforms, the taste of the glue we once licked, but now too the smell of the scratch-and-sniff stamps, touted as a wonderful innovation though many decades late.
And even better innovation might be to finally get mail forwarding right, but I’m pretty sure they have given up on that.