Tiny billboards — The lost medium of matchbook covers
Long before social media, the matchbook was frequently an effective choice for small business advertising alongside the newspaper, and the radio spot. Once found everywhere, now a rare and precious find

A child of the late seventies and eighties, I have always had an affectation for small morsels of design. While my siblings enjoyed their records, lounging on shag carpets and rooms lit by lava lamp, we were a generation on the move. Taking our music with us — portable, sleek devices in our pockets. Cassettes, and as I aged, minidiscs, a lifetime of tiny pieces of art catching my eye.

In particular, I was drawn to matchbook covers. Once a legitimate and surprisingly effective form of advertising in such a petite package.

What is a matchbook?

For the young and uninitiated, matchbook covers are nothing more than a folded strip of cardboard that surround two rows of matches. The exterior cover has a coarse strip that the matches can be struck against to light them. All held together with a single staple. So simple. Once found everywhere, now a rare and precious find.

Thinking of my early days

My career started back before the days of computers, long before social media. As an one man 'art-department' in a family-owned quick print shop the matchbook was frequently an effective choice for small business advertising alongside the newspaper, and the radio spot. The matchbook had an astonishing cost per impression. From Atlas Match, “The matchbook industry has proudly touted up to 28 advertising impressions per single matchbook. The user would look at the advertisement 20 times to light a match, and the people around the match user were exposed up to 8-times.”

Value that fits in the palm of your hand

A case of 2000 matchbooks could be obtained for a few hundred dollars — this was a common ‘no-brainer’ free giveaway that a small business budget could accommodate. Unlike an imprinted pen, where the design is often obscured by its use, the matchbook’s surface and mechanism of use lent well to being seen. One cannot ignore its part in the ritual of the smoker. A communal experience passed between users. The abundant matchbook could be shared, given away, and potentially reach other 'like-minded' customers in an organic manner. What could be more subtle than for a brand to pass in front of one's own eyes multiple times daily. No hard sell, just a friendly visual within view.

Millions of matches waiting patiently in pockets and drawers all over the world. They are always glad to be found, and we are sad when the last match is struck. And here I sit anthropomorphizing.

The enchantment of the matchbook and proof of its versatility is how a few square inches of space has been utilized by millions of organizations. From a simple logo to an ad of a product or service to stunning illustration to catch the eye, spreading its message. Call me an idyllic romantic but I cannot deny the warmth of the physical object in a world of fake smiles on cold screens. That small packet of cardboard and sulfur has a long shelf life as well. Millions of matches waiting patiently in pockets and drawers all over the world. They are always glad to be found, and we are sad when the last match is struck. And here I sit anthropomorphizing.

An unusually resourceful solution by a government agency

After 9/11, thousands of matchbooks were printed and spread into the Middle East by the US State department with Osama bin Laden’s image. They included the offer of a million-dollar reward and relocation to those who provided information. A clever solution to a monumental problem. How do you reach a population with little to no access to radio, television, or internet? This was a highly effective way to broadcast that message into the region, since the smoking population was considerable.

credit - CBC Radio · Posted: Mar 19, 2020
Tiny billboards — The lost media of matchbook covers – Frank Orlando

Everything old is new again

Therein lies the Achilles heel of the matchbook; the rapid demise of the tobacco smoker in the late 90s. Much like the return of vinyl, cassettes, and other affectations from the past, I believe there is a yearning for the tactile. With the legalization of cannabis, the smoker’s ritual has returned in a huge surge. There is comfort in knowing you have matches. The distribution of free heat and light coupled with the friendly reminder that your local pub is only a few blocks away.

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Frank Orlando

A senior communications professional with three decades of client experience. An instructor at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University and lecturer of communication design, technology and illustration. Principal of Orlando Media Company, a creative practice providing strategic direction, creative vision, and human focused branding.

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