A profit is on the cards
IT was one of those ideas that, at the time, seemed like a good one. The AIDS Council in Queensland, Australia, wanted to send out a safe sex message to as many in the gay community as it could possibly reach in a way that would ensure the maximum longevity of the messenger.
Posters had been tried in the past, as had leaflets and television advertising campaigns. This year it was to be different. By issuing a special series of swap cards - featuring eye-catching photographs of naked men in various sexual acts with the safe sex message on the reverse - to be distributed through gay venues and nightclubs, the lesson would be simple, direct and long lasting.
With the popularity of trading cards at an all-time high in Australia, the Bubble Boy series could even end up becoming collectors' items, something that would ensure their term in the marketplace.
The ruling by the state censor that the 24,000 cards were pornographic, and their subsequent banning, hasn't eased the backlash from the card industry, angry that the AIDS Council seized on cards as an effective way of spreading an idea completely inappropriate for their audience.
'I think they've just been jumping on the bandwagon,' said card expert John Nitis. 'It doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I don't think the swap card area is one in which a lot of homosexuals are interested; 80 to 90 per cent of its is made up of young people under the age of 20 and you're not really trying to present a gay safe sex message to children.
'It's a message that should go out only to consenting adults, and for parents that's a problem. They go to great lengths to put ratings on TV programmes, on movies, on videos, to make sure kids are not influenced by things they're not ready to see. Now if you have groups like this sticking these cards out to where kids see them every day . . . I wouldn't like to see my 10-year-old son coming home with a set of Bubble Boy cards.' Yet it's easy to see the attraction of issuing a set of cards into an Australian market that's currently enjoying its biggest boom in years, moving from being merely a pale shadow of its American counterpart into a multi-million-dollar industry in its own right. In 1992, it was worth somewhere between A$10 million (about HK$57 million) and $15 million at retail. Now, insiders value it at well past the A$50 million mark.
In Australia the biggest growth has been in locally produced cards, with a distinct shift towards cards featuring cricket, rugby league, AFL, basketball, soccer, rugby and even baseball players.
A limited issue of 50 cards autographed by former Australian test cricket captain Allan Border sold at A$350 each in 1993; these days they sell at about A$2,000 per card. A card featuring cricketing great Donald Bradman selling at A$60 last year is worth at least A$150 now.
In Hong Kong, where cards are still a hot item despite a decline in sales, those by Yes Communication are the top locally-produced sellers. Their sales have remained steady in the last six months, while demand for American or Japanese cards has dropped.
The cards are sold through vending machines at $1 each. 'The youngsters rarely only insert one coin,' said Oliver Wong Yan-kit, managing director of Yes.
'Some put in $400 to $500 when new cards are available from the machines.' It's a lucrative business, worth $40 million a year to Yes.
The cards come in various finishes - with shiny cards fetching the highest prices from collectors.
'Some are worth only a few dollars, but I've heard of shiny cards being sold for $70 or even a few hundred dollars,' Mr Wong said. 'And older cards are of value too because we don't do reprints.' The hottest commodities are cards showing singers Vivian Chow Wai-man, Charlie Young Choi-nei, Leon Lai-ming, Andy Lau Tak-wah and Aaron Kwok Fu-shing.
While cards do provide an effective means of spreading messages - the police recently approached Dynamic, one of Australia's largest producers, with the idea of producing cards about road safety - they're not always suitable.
Product manager Linda Joannidis said it was one thing to restrict the distribution of, say, gay cards to certain nightclubs, but it was quite another to try to control their disbursement afterwards.
'A lot of kids don't read leaflets or newspapers but with cards you can have a quick, easy message that is easy to carry around,' she said. 'With cards you can't say these are specifically for this group of people, and these are for others.' The appearance of the gay cards has fuelled fears that the market could become flooded with cards with less salubrious overtones. 'It's a good way of giving certain groups exposure,' said Mr Nitis. 'There are certainly Playboy cards in existence at the moment, but there aren't many around - you have to virtually order them from the States because the market is so small.' In Hong Kong pornographic comic cards are available. One outlet is in Causeway Bay where they can cost more than $100. The owner, Chong Ting-fai, said the price of the cards largely depended on the reputation of the artist who drew the women depicted.
But Hong Kong student counsellor Kenny Fu Man-sang was more concerned about youngsters behaving like speculators. 'It is important that students learn how to spend their money wisely,' he said.
'Parents have a responsibility to teach their children not to spend beyond their budget. But there is basically nothing wrong with collecting cards, it's like collecting stamps. Of course, it's better for them not to buy the pornographic ones.' All cards are now banned by most schools, following reports of thefts of cards or money by students who could not afford to buy their favourites.
'Some students use all their money on cards, skipping lunches or not buying the books they need,' said primary teacher Ida Lee Lai-ming, a committee member of the Professional Teachers' Union.
'Some of the cards are really beautifully-made, but there were also cases of rip-offs, where poorly-informed students ended up paying far more than the cards were actually worth.' In Australia, too, some schools have banned cards from their grounds after problems with youngsters squabbling. In Melbourne last year police launched a hunt for a nine-year-old boy who disappeared on a 10-hour card-buying mission.
Prices there range from 30 Australian cents up to A$676,000 for one of the rarest cards in the world, the Honus Wagner's T-206 basketball card, which sold at auction for US$451,000.
The Phantom is said to be the favourite of closet collector and former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, with the Lion King a favourite among young girls. At Kings Comics in Sydney's city centre young women are also heavily involved, often through the issue of cards celebrating figures such as Snow White, the Phantom and the stars of popular children's television show The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
In the territory the popularity and value of the cards has made them inevitable targets for pirate traders. Mr Wong said more than 60 per cent of the Japanese animation cards in supply were 'pirated' copies, available at $1 or $2 each from vending machines.
American comic superhero cards such as Superman, X-man and Spiderman have always had a large following among both expatriate and Chinese teenagers, many of whom have also developed a taste for cards featuring American basketball stars.
'They know their names and which cards have potential for a rise in value,' said Mr Chong. 'The cards also provide common topics of conversation among the youngsters.' A common practice now is to buy packages of American cards that sell for $18, with each pack containing 11 cards. Serious collectors stock up on the packs, buying boxes of 36 or 24, to obtain a complete set.
Each pack may have special cards included, for example, autographed or shiny cards, which alone could be traded for as much as a few hundred dollars, depending on the subject.
The chance of finding a gold foil autographed card in a package was about one in 35 and it could be worth as little as $20 if it was of an unknown basketball player, Mr Chong said. Yet the chance of a good find was what gives the card game its appeal.
Japanese cards, of the popular Sailormoons comic series for instance, are normally $30 to $120 each.
But not all regard it as a way to make money. A 20-year-old card collector said: 'It's satisfying to have a complete set of cards; it's great to know that I have in my possession what many others don't have.' And the experts in Australia doubt cards such as the Bubble Boy series will catch on with young collectors. Mr Nitis said: 'Kids like collecting cards depicting sporting heroes or fantasy characters. The way cards become valuable is if there's a limited number of them and they are desirable. 'I can't imagine too many people wanting to go into a card shop and asking for the Bubble Boys.'