The world of corporate Web sites has always had its share of colossal follies -- strained efforts to take some workaday product or business and surround it with Hollywood glitz because, well, this is the Web and you have to rope people in to your site, or so executives were told.
Now that the Web has been around a while, most businesses have begun to understand that their corporate sites can be service centers and sales locations without also trying (and failing miserably) to be Cecil B. DeMille extravaganzas.
The United States Postal Service runs a good utilitarian site, with a nifty Zip Code lookup feature, a rate calculator, Express Mail tracking, a change-of-address service, stamp-collectors' pages and more. Hell, you can even send them e-mail. But follow a link to a department called "InkCredible Stories" and you'll find an extravagantly silly Web production -- a series of five-minute animations called "Super Postal Workers."
Yes, it's a Saturday-morning-cartoon style show, appearing in monthly installments on the USPS site, focusing on the exploits of two mild-mannered postal workers who fight the forces of evil by donning costumes and transforming themselves into "The Stamper" and "Expressa." Here is the theme song in its entirety:
Super postal workers, coming on strong
Super postal workers, always ready to go
Super postal workers, never take long
Through rain, sleet and snow -- super postal workers!
In the first two episodes, the heroes' city is threatened by one "Dr. Malfeasance," who has substituted "truth stamps" for the normal kind; when people lick their stamps, they become unable to tell lies. "Politicians and married couples will be helpless!" he drawls. Hyardy har har.
What could have possessed the USPS to foot the not inconsiderable cost of such an ambitious yet dumb production? Sure, postal employees have a bad image -- what with "going postal" having entered the common parlance as a synonym for "going nuts," and the popularity of the ultraviolent computer game "Postal." But do USPS leaders honestly believe that a kiddie-style cartoon will be of any use in reversing that image?
Maybe, instead, they simply view "Super Postal Workers" as a technology demonstration. The cartoons -- developed by Digital Planet -- are delivered across the Web using Macromedia's Flash technology, which requires a browser plug-in to work. Flash is a "vector-based" approach to graphics, meaning it reduces image files to formulas for shapes, thus reducing the size of the files and boosting the speed at which they can be transferred across the Net.
In "Super Postal Workers," Flash works pretty well on a fast office Net connection; after a 30-second or so wait, I received five minutes of animation and sound without interruption. At home, on a slower modem, the sound was a little garbled and the screen periodically froze. Because Flash is much more efficient at enlarging or reducing one image than at actually changing what's on your screen, a lot of the movement in the cartoons is accomplished via clever but disconcerting manipulations of perspective: it's as if two-dimensional cut-out puppets were being moved closer or farther away from your eyes.
As with so many multimedia Web efforts, you watch "Super Postal Workers" with a little feeling of "OK, cool, you can do this, but so what?" The technical achievement is arresting only as long as you're willing to forget that you can watch far better produced -- and if you pick carefully, far more entertaining -- cartoons just by turning on your TV.
As for what the project says about the USPS, I wouldn't put too many bets on the august institution's savvy as it strives to keep up with changes in the technological landscape. Sure, the service is experimenting with "e-stamps." But what does that prove? The rise of the Net and the phenomenal popularity of e-mail portend vast transformations of information delivery in our society -- and all the USPS can think of is to use the Net as an alternative way to meter old-fashioned postage.
The first thing you see on the USPS home page is this declaration: "Our goal is to evolve into a premier provider of 21st-century postal communications by providing postal products and services of such quality that they will be recognized as the best value in America." What's the value in "Super Postal Workers" -- and why should the USPS keep getting rate hikes if it can afford junk like this?