In 1981, alcoholics faced tremendous stigma, said the National Council on Alcoholism, even as alcohol itself remained as popular as ever. Call someone an alcoholic, and that was more of a moral condemnation than a statement of their condition. The NCA wanted to change people’s minds to make them think of it as a disease, a disease that can be treated and where no one’s tempted to assign blame. 

That year, the US Postal Service put out a new stamp about alcoholism. “Alcoholism—you can beat it!” it said. The “o” took the form of the symbol of the campaign against alcoholism, a caduceus that doubled as a key pointing upward. The symbol was kid of obscure, but it still looked cool, and you don’t need to recognize it to see it as representing hope and a solution.

The stamp released to more fanfare than most stamps. It got its own article in the New York Times, and the NCA took out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal telling people about it. The postal service printed a whole lot of them (over nine million, according to collectors). Then, some months later, USPS just destroyed most of them and made no more, because it was clear the public wasn’t buying them.

The problem was, if someone stuck the stamp on the envelope and sent it to someone else, that was like declaring that they could beat their alcoholism. Meaning, it was a way of telling someone you’ve noticed their drinking and want to help them stop. Either that, or it sounded like an admission of alcoholism and a request for help, and most people sending mail didn’t want to go either of those routes. 

When you know there’s a stigma against something, it’s all very well to say you’re going to fight that stigma, but you also have to acknowledge the stigma when figuring out how people are going to respond to your campaign. 

Later, the postal service used their experience with the alcoholism stamp when grappling with how people would take a proposed stamp about AIDS awareness. Would people find the stamp too depressing? Would they think anyone who used the stamp had AIDS? In the end, they did roll out a stamp with a simple red ribbon, but it avoided any text that said “You can deal with AIDS!” 

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For more stamp stories, check out:

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