FREE POSTCARDS SEND HIP MESSAGE

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Manhattan entrepreneur Alan Wolan is making a splash in the advertising world by literally giving away his product-postcards emblazoned with zippy images.

FiveFinger & Co. creates cards that subtly advertise consumer products and entertainment. One depicts the Statue of Liberty wearing a T-shirt that sports the name of a New York-area microbrewery and hoisting a beer. Mr. Wolan describes his product as "trading cards for the tragically hip."

The company's displays are in 170 restaurants, taverns and retail sites throughout the city, and they'll be in 300 establishments by yearend. Independently owned partner companies have sprung up in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, forming the PostAds Group network.

So far, FiveFinger's cool image has been a good marketing tool. To keep growing, however, Mr. Wolan will be pressured to prove that the year-old FiveFinger isn't a fad.

The postcards are popular with consumers and restaurateurs because they are free. Advertisers like them because they are cheaper than many alternatives.

"It's the only advertising medium I know of where the consumers get something of value for their mental effort-a 75 (cents) piece of paper they can send to friends or hang up on their wall," said Mr. Wolan.

The edgy look of the cards was inspired by FiveFinger's early advertisers. When the company started, the medium was favored by artists publicizing upcoming gallery showcases, and by cultural groups such as Lincoln Center.

That changed when Schieffelin & Somerset's Hennessy cognac became the first large-scale advertiser to appear on a FiveFinger card.

Since then, images promoting Donna Karan New York, Clairol, Sony Music and alcohol marketers Absolut, Dewars and Stolichnaya have appeared on the postcards. Those moves have fueled FiveFinger sales, which are now in the "mid-six figures," said Mr. Wolan.

Advertisers are lured by the offbeat, subtle exposure. Hennessy already was using a poster imitating French ads of the 1930s to promote its new Hennessy martini. When the company turned the poster over to FiveFinger, it became an instant hit in the postcard displays.

`It's the sort of thing you might buy as a real art postcard in SoHo," said Hennessy Brand Manager Patrick Morley-Fletcher. "In terms of a new, discreet way of advertising, it works very well."

Other advertisers are trying to attract a chic, younger audience.

"This seemed like a very good way to reach out beyond the typical classical music audience," said Matthew Glass, marketing director for Lincoln Center, which is using postcards to herald five of the center's six summer programs.

Mr. Wolan, 32, first ran across the idea while living in Berlin after graduating from New York University's Stern School of Business and working as an account executive at D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles.

"It was a lot of ads for art galleries and showings. I dismissed it as garbage, wasted paper," he said. "Then, as the months progressed, I saw big advertisers like Lufthansa and Coca-Cola were using this medium, and I thought, `Maybe this is not such a bad idea."'

Mr. Gales is a correspondent for Crain's New York Business.

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