'Get Out of Hell Free' Parody Card Hits 1-Million Sold Mark

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Creator says cards' popularity sends an important message.

A parody "Get Out of Hell Free" card, created by a Colorado online columnist in response to being told he is going to hell, has hit a million cards sold.

"To be sure, there is a message" behind the strong sales of the card, says Randy Cassingham. "A message and a social phenomenon. It's a story of the rejection of religious intolerance, a statement of 'I can think for myself, thank you'."

The card was created after an online reader told Cassingham he was going to go to hell for writing an 87-word story about "feng shui" -- the Chinese art of "placement" to create "energy and harmony." The reader condemned Cassingham to hell because, she said, his story was "anti-Christian". When Cassingham told the reader a Methodist minister was OK with the story, she condemned him to hell too.

"I figured that if she had the power to condemn me to hell with the snap of her mind," Cassingham said, "I should have the power to counteract her." He created the "Get Out of Hell Free" card on his computer, had them printed, and offered them to the readers of his online newsletter for $1 for 10 cards -- the cost of printing, packing and postage. "Dollar bills started streaming in immediately," Cassingham said. It was Spring 2000, and he didn't even have an online shopping cart. "The orders came in by mail," Cassingham says. "The first 2,000 cards lasted three days."

And the orders have never stopped. Cassingham now has 20,000 cards printed at a time, which lasts just four to six weeks. "The printers really scratch their heads over it," he says, "but they love the business." Cassingham also sells "GOOHF" t-shirts, stickers, and other items. "It has become its own little cottage industry for us."

The cards, a parody of the "Get Out of Jail Free" cards that come with the Monopoly® board game, are probably the first successful online-to-offline crossover of "viral marketing," Cassingham says, which is why he only charged enough to cover printing, packing and postage. "I didn't feel a need to make a profit on the cards," Cassingham says, "because they all have my web site's URL on them." The card is a "real object that I knew would be passed around in the real world. And what's better in the 'dotcom' era than to have your URL spread around?"

Indeed the cards, which his readers have spread to dozens of countries, have led to a lot of traffic to his web site and subscriptions to his e-mail newsletter, which covers weird news stories from all over the world. "It's a real win-win," Cassingham said. "I get my site exposed to a new audience, and they have fun with the cards."

Cassingham's "This is True" newsletter is a pioneer in online publishing: he started it in 1994 while working as a software engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. He quit his day job in 1996 to work online full time and moved "away from the rat race of Los Angeles" to Colorado. He works out of his home in an office "on a mesa with views of two mountain ranges" in rural Western Colorado. A second newsletter -- the "True Stella Awards" at http://www.StellaAwards.com -- recounts ridiculous-but-true lawsuits and their impact on society. Dutton, a division of Penguin USA, published his True Stella Awards book, based on his web site and newsletter, last Fall.

The people who buy the cards don't usually use them to counter religious prostilitizers, Cassingham says. Mostly, they're given to others to help cheer them up. "The store clerk who just dealt with a screaming customer," he says. "The waitress whose customer is never satisfied. The fellow employee who needs the message, 'I have to deal with our idiot boss too.'" He notes that several customers have stapled a card to their letters of resignation when they quit their jobs. "And, of course, they're the perfect answer to those who insist on dictating what your beliefs should be."

The cards are even popular with the clergy. "Two priests posted to the Vatican have the cards -- that I know of," Cassingham said. "One even admits to wearing a GOOHF t-shirt under his cassock." Several ministers have ordered thousands of cards, presumably to pass out to their congregations as a way to spark discussion.

Meanwhile, orders for the "GOOHF" cards, which Cassingham says is pronounced "goof cards," continue to stream in. "Sin all you want," he says. "We'll print more." The cards can be ordered online from http://www.GOOHF.com, or by mail from Get Out of Hell Free, PO Box 666, Ridgway CO 81432. They're still $1 for 10 -- the cost of printing, packing and postage. The GOOHF card is a project of http://www.thisistrue.com

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