Common cents

Free money? Well, sort of.
By DOUG HEYE  |  March 12, 2008


Our government is now taking its cues from late-night infomercials. But instead of, say, an extra week’s supply of weight-loss pills or a custom-grip filet knife, they’re offering legal tender. Just when you thought the Feds couldn’t waste money any faster, the US Mint launched the kind of Hail Mary marketing ploy popularized by bankrupt mattress stores — a belated President’s Day blowout sale.

The occasion? The release of the fifth in a series of little-noticed circulating presidential dollar coins, this one featuring the cleft-chinned James Monroe. Presumably, consumer interest in the series is low (near zero, it would seem). And with metal piling up in its warehouses, the Mint passed off some surplus to a distributor, who’s giving the four presidential coins issued in 2007 away for free.

The Mint’s marketing partner, the private “collectable-coin distributor” World Reserve Monetary Exchange, has resorted to throwing them in with the purchase of a $31 (plus shipping) “Framed Presidential Money Gallery.”

It’s a little hard to tell from World Reserve’s online sales pitch, but it looks suspiciously as if the gallery is designed to accommodate all of the presidential coins the Mint will continue to issue at a rate of four per year through 2016 (the collection stops with Gerald Ford), not just the four-dollar starter set.

Thus far, the Mint has spent at least $5 million promoting the series. And still it comes to this.

Shocking, huh? One would have thought that Americans would be thrilled to carry around sacks full of heavy, shiny gold-colored coins. After all, there’s nothing more dramatic — or more practical — then paying your bill with a bunch of loose change.

Public apathy is hardly a surprise. Every dollar-coin campaign has been an embarrassing and costly failure.

Remember the silver Susan B. Anthony dollar? Introduced in 1979, it took officials only a year (and 900 million coins) to notice that it bore a striking, and confusing, resemblance to the quarter. The US Mint quickly stopped producing them, and by 1981, they had essentially dropped out of circulation.

The Mint gave it another go in 2000 with the gold-toned Sacagawea dollar — and spent nearly $70 million promoting it with a garish float in the 1999 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a sweepstakes featured on Cheerios boxes, and a $40 million ad blitz starring a back-from-the-dead talking George Washington.

Those were your tax dollars. Needless to say, that campaign didn’t work, either.

In fact, the Sacagawea dollar proved so unpopular that its production was halted less than two years after its introduction. In 2005, the Federal Reserve reported that it had more than 200 million unwanted coins in storage.

Yet Mint officials remain resolute when confronted with history. And they’re banking on these new James Monroe dollars to succeed where those bearing the faces of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison failed.

Anyone with an ounce of common sense — or common cents — knows that dollar coins will never catch on as common currency. Relative to bills, they’re just plain annoying. You see, men and women alike prefer to carry their money in wallets. Not medieval satchels.

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