Cards Against Humanity's promotions are as bitingly sarcastic as the game itself—whether they're charging more for the game on Black Friday, experimenting with a "Pay what you want" model (which outright insulted anyone who chose to pay less than cost) or teaming with Netflix just this week for an already sold out House of Cards pack.
But the card game's recent "12 Days of Holiday Bullshit" promotion was truly something special. In December, 100,000 people paid $12 for 12 gifts from CAH, with no idea what they'd get. They sold out in less than six hours. And then, incredibly, they really did give 100,000 people 12 gifts each (and then some).
AdFreak caught up with Ben Hantoot, one of the founders of CAH and the design force behind Holiday Bullshit, for a postmortem.
AdFreak: Start at the beginning. How did you come up with this bullshit?
Ben Hantoot: As you may know, in 2012 we did a pay-what-you-want expansion pack for the holidays. We donated all the profit to Wikimedia—about $70,000—making us a "major benefactor," which made us feel important. We also got a very healthy press response, and the fans loved it. For 2013, we had to one-up ourselves. We'd thought about doing another pay-what-you-want pack, or some other similar gag, but ultimately we decided to do almost exactly the opposite—you pay us $12, and we won't even tell you what you're getting. We came up with the name "12 Days of Holiday Bullshit" very suddenly … no one even remembers how that happened, but it sounded great and we stuck with it.
Did you expect it to sell out as fast as it did?
Among the eight of us, everyone had their own opinions about how long it would take to sell out, but most people were predicting more like two to five days. Six hours was much faster than anyone thought. Watching the counter was kind of terrifying. We were amazed the website didn't crash.
Would you have pulled it off without getting 100,000 people on board?
Everything was already manufactured by the time we started selling the $12 slots, so if we ended up selling less than 100,000, we just would have lost even more money on this giant thing.
Speaking of money, how much money did you make on Black Friday when you increased the price of your card game by $5?
It worked so well! We had about the same jump in sales we had in 2012, normalized versus the previous Friday, but then if you look at Saturday to Monday, we did much, much better than 2012, thanks to silly publications like Adweek who posted all about it.
Back to the Holiday Bullshit. What kind of feedback did you get from fans?
Most of the feedback fell into one of two categories: "OMG THIS IS SO AMAZING AND WORTH MORE THAN $12" and "WTF MY ENVELOPES ARE LATE YOU SHOULD DIE."
The "Tell Santa CAH what you want for Christmas" section that appeared after you paid your $12—what function did that serve?
We also asked people the nicest and naughtiest things they did in 2013. Then we sorted through the responses and picked out the ones that were either really funny or really sweet, and actually sent people what they asked for.
A very enthusiastic fan for whom you bought a Lord of the Rings card game contacted me personally on a crusade to get you some press in return for her gift. What else did people get?
We sent one guy a few trillion Zimbabwe dollars, another some beef jerky, a few others a Roku or fresh socks or Space Jam on VHS. Some people who had good stories but stupid requests got books and DVDs by the artists we worked with on the comics page. It was a lot of fun.
How far in advance did you start planning all the shenanigans?
I started working on production in June. Concepting started way back in March and April. We had the 12 days idea nailed down a long time before we decided exactly what each day was going to be. A few discarded ideas for days: an envelope containing 10,000 Vietnamese dong; an essay ripping apart American holiday culture by Slavoj Žižek; a sachet of live crickets; loose, ambiguous white powder.
What you ended up going with was interesting. Days 1, 3, 5, 7 (NSFW), 9 and 11 (NSFW) were additional cards to expand your CAH game, and each one came with a low-budget online video featuring online stars like ukulele nerd Molly Lewis, Song a Day guy Jonathan Mann and even comedy nerd-core band Paul and Storm. How did you get all of those Internet celebrities to buy into your bullshit? And how did you keep them quiet?
We've made many friends over the years going to conventions and supporting other indie gaming businesses online and offline. Plus, we've built up a brand for ourselves over the years that is very no-B.S. and generally trustworthy. Basically, we just asked people to be part of this, and almost all of them said yes!
Day 2 was a lump of coal. You mailed us a real, albeit minute, lump of coal, and made a ridiculous trailer for it. A lot of people got Day 2 as their first mailing and thought it was the only thing they were getting.
We shipped out the coal as Day 2 basically to mess with people and upset them and make them feel like they wasted their $12. But it turns out USPS gives timing estimates that are so far off base as to be useless. And Canadian customs also didn't like the coal at all.
How did you get all that coal into tiny baggies?
We wrote a whole blog post about that, actually. Basically, we shopped around for a coal supplier that already offered tiny broken-up lumps. When we found it, we had a fulfillment center sort it all into 100,000 dime bags each containing three pieces of coal less than a quarter inch thick (any thicker than that and we'd have to mail it as a parcel, which would have cost five or six times as much). This took a whole team of people over a week to do. Sorting the coal was one of the most expensive and time-consuming parts of the whole process.
Which brings us to Day 4, which was an entirely new self-contained card game called ClusterF*ck, where the objective is to give your friends chlamydia. You gave it to everyone in the promotion, but people can also download it for free.
We made Clusterf*ck Day 4 to make up for the coal. We think Clusterf*ck was probably the best gift. Throughout the whole process, we had to keep in mind the restrictions of USPS's definition of a "letter"—no larger than 11.5 by 6.125 inches, no thicker than a quarter inch, no heavier than 3.3 ounces, and tightly packed within the envelope. If we messed up anywhere, we'd lose a ton of money on postage. It also directed a lot of the design of Clusterf*ck, which we think turned out super well. To meet the weight restrictions, we used mini cards instead of normal cards.
To meet the thickness restrictions, we packed the cards into three small piles instead of one big one. And to make the whole thing reusable, we put the cards in a closeable plastic pouch within a sturdy card-stock folder that doubles as the instructions. We're super proud of having designed a whole game with over 40 cards that can be manufactured, shipped from China and then mailed to a person's house for less than $1.
Day 6 was mini-posters of popular CAH cards created by The Post Family. Pretty self-explanatory. But each day also had artwork on the envelopes. Who was the artist there?
This awesome dude named Mare Odomo. We just gave him the very basic direction to make some jokes based on the 12 Days of Christmas, and he killed it. "Two turtle doves" is probably my favorite.
Day 8 was a zine of comics from some of the most popular and generally awesome Web comics online, including Hyperbole and a Half, Dinosaur Comics and many, many more. How did you pull that one off?
The USPS's restrictions were also super important for some of the bigger days, like the posters and the funny pages. It meant the posters had to be smaller and thinner than they originally were, and it meant we had to cut the funny pages down to a totally custom newspaper size.
For Day 10, CAH donated $100,000 to charity funding 299 public school projects on DonorsChoose.org. I thought the charity gift was inspired. Why did you pick DonorsChoose?
DonorsChoose is an incredible charity. Your dollar really goes a long way, and you know the money isn't being wasted. We made a fun infographic outlining how many kids we were able to help for just $100,000.
Finally, on Day 12, you gave everyone a CAH card with their name on it.
Sorting the name cards was also a crazy process. Remember that each individual card had to be connected to a specific address. The mailing house wanted us to print a number on each card, but there was no way we were going to do that, so instead we came up with a convoluted system where the cards were divided into hundreds of smaller batches and each insertion of a card into an envelope was individually checked.
To be honest, I'm slightly worried about including the card with my name on it when I play the game. Did you put your name card in with your deck?
Oh, hell no. Terrifying!