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Playing cards are an excellent promotional gadget for commercial brands. Many companies have decks specifically made with their own logo or label featured on the back.
The first decks of this kind were made in the 19th century, though only in the 20th century they became popular, thanks to the improvement of printing and manufacturing techniques, which dramatically lowered the cost of having a deck personalized, to be used for publicity purposes.
W5 Scotch Whisky (manufacturer not mentioned)
advertisement deck for Kaim Todner Solicitors,
by Games And Print Services (UK)
From a collector's point of view, decks bearing an advertisement can be divided into two main varieties.
- The most common one is the kind that features a label on the back, or mentions a commercial product, and has a standard pattern on the front, i.e. when the cards are laid face up they cannot be told from an ordinary deck. In some editions, such as the one on the left, the design may look slightly different, but this has nothing to do with the advertisement, so it should be considered as a regular international pattern, all the same.
- The other kind, scarcer but more sought for by collectors, has particular illustrations or details that relate to the brand or to the product advertised by the deck. In most cases only jokers and aces bear such special features, but in a few cases they are added so extensively that the deck can also be included among the fancy (non-standard) editions. In fact, a sample belonging to both categories is the Argentinean deck for Sol Jet company, with views on each card, presented in gallery 1, page 3.
Here are two more samples, one for each variety.
Below is a two-deck set by Héron (France), advertising the famous perfumes Van Cleef & Arpels; the logo is on the back, while the pattern is the standard international one: no trace of the product appears on the front.
Van Cleef & Arpels, by Héron (France)
On the left is an edition made for British Airways, in which each of the 52 subjects bears a different aircraft that belonged to the company.
British Airways deck, by Waddingtons (U.K.)
Guinness deck with posters from the 1930s, by Carta Mundi (Belgium)
Among the many commercial categories found on the back of playing cards, breweries and beer brands are probably the most popular ones. Especially in northern Europe they are very common items; a few have non-standard patterns, such as the edition on the left with old Guinness posters, but in most other cases their faces feature a regular pattern, such as the Dutch editions shown below, as these decks are not only sought for by playing card collectors (as well as by breweriana fanciers), but are also commonly used for playing.
Dutch beer brands, with a regular Dutch pattern (above),
and with fancy aces and jokers (below), all by Carta Mundi (Belgium)
beer brands from the U.S.A.
(left, by U.S. Playing Card Co.)
and from U.K. (right, by Waddingtons),
with a regular international pattern
above: old Huntsman Ales label,
by Eldridge Pope (U.K., 1940s);
below: recent John Smith's label,
by Carta Mundi (Belgium)
Castella and Rothmans, by Carta Mundi
Not only beer, but spirits (see opening picture) and soft drinks are sponsors whose label is commonly featured, as well as tobacco products (such as the ones on the left), and more in general any kind of goods whose consumption often takes place in bars, clubs, and other establishments where card games are likely to be played.
Other labels that traditionally appear on the back of playing cards all over the world are those of airway companies. The uniqueness of these editions depends on the fact that they can only be purchased on board, and that the labels from time to time tend to change. A sample is shown on the right, but a good selection is on display in Athena's Playing Card Collection, specialized in airways decks.
Singapore Airlines, special edition for the
company's 50th anniversary (manufacturer unknown)
Italia shipping company label, by Modiano (Italy, 1950s)
Up to the early 1960s also many shipping companies used to have their own decks, sold on board, which the passengers could kill time with, during long cruises. But later on, when for covering long distances planes took over ships, the number of such companies greatly decreased, and so did also the decks that advertised them.
Although some commercial categories choose playing cards as a form of advertisement for their products more often than others, samples with labels of the most unusual sponsors exist. Such a great variety explains why, among playing card collectors, advertisement decks have become one of the major branches of this hobby.
above: Ibupirac, a painkiller from Argentina (manufacturer unknown);
below: Il cartaio, an Italian movie, cards by Modiano (Italy)
below left: Barclaycard Visa, by Carta Mundi (Belgium)
Bayern pattern for Zink and A.U.B., by FX Schmidt (Germany) A large majority of advertisement decks features on the front the international pattern, but editions with a national pattern exist (particularly in the Netherlands, France and Belgium), as well as some with regional patterns, although in some countries they are less popular than in others.
left: Neapoletan pattern for MAA and Milano insurance companies, and Totocalcio (football lotto), by Modiano (Italy);
right: Piacentine pattern for the Italian Communist Refoundation Party, by Dal Negro (Italy)
The sample on the right features an Italian Canasta deck by Modiano, a special pattern with dots instead of the usual suit signs, whose backs in this edition advertise the national football lottery Totocalcio; the jokers too refer to the advertisement (standard ones can be seen in Variants of the international pattern).
Canasta deck with Totocalcio advertisement and special jokers
Among Asian playing cards, the regional patterns that may bear a commercial label on their back are reportedly the two below: Hwa Tu pattern (Korean flower cards), whose only advertisement known is for Korean Airlines company (also shown in the Japanese-Korean gallery, page 3), and Mah Jong cards made in Malaysia, advertising different cigarette brands.
advertisement decks from Asia:
Korean Hwa Tu (top) and Malaysian Mah Jong (right)
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