TAKING VANITY to new heights, the world can now slap its image on everything from a postage stamp to a credit card, transforming the "look at me" mentality from figurative to literal in one giant, narcissistic leap.
This month, the U.S. Postal Service gave the go-ahead for a Los Angeles technology company to test customized postage made from people's pictures. A Nebraska bank, also this month, introduced a credit card with a photograph of the customer as its main image - meant more for the sake of individuality than security. You also can get checks with your picture on them, including from Custom Direct Inc. in Harford County.
"I think as Americans, we just like to express our individuality," said Sue Tieger, a vice president with the First National Bank of Omaha, which launched the "One of a Card" photo Visa on Aug. 2. "It's [evident] in our clothes and the way we dress, the cars we drive."
While placing pictures on T-shirts, coffee mugs and other knick-knacks is not a new idea, the rise in digital photography and accompanying technology are making it easier to do - and drawing in a variety of businesses that might otherwise have skipped the niche.
"It adds a nice touch and makes the mail a little more exciting," said Ken McBride, president and chief executive officer of Stamps.com Inc. Last week, it launched www.PhotoStamps.com, a Web site where people can order personalized stamps.
The company anticipates its use on greeting cards, birth announcements and wedding invitations, although not everyone buys into the concept.
"I'm not quite that detail-oriented," said Catherine M. Simmons, a Baltimore attorney planning a June wedding, chuckling at the idea.
She added that she didn't really want everyone between the origin and destination of a letter checking her out.
But others were tickled by the idea.
"It sounds fun, I think it's fabulous," said Brooke Olson, a store manager at Downs Engravers and Stationers in Baltimore.
She said she wasn't sure if her customers, who tend to be "old-school traditional," would embrace the idea for their weddings, however.
"It might be more fun on, say, a party invitation rather than a wedding invitation," she said. "They're more contemporary and a little more casual."
In a report entitled "Embracing the Future," the President's Commission on the United States Postal Service recommended last year letting people "design their own stamps, perhaps adding a family photo or a small business logo" as part of a concerted effort to save snail mail from going the way of the typewriter.
That determination might have helped McBride, who has spent the past 18 months or so trying to talk the Postal Service into letting him make pictures into postage.
"They had a lot of issues with the technology and the security and other guidelines," said McBride, whose main business, Stamps.com, was the first to provide postage over the Internet - primarily to companies. He said he hopes the new stamps will draw in individuals.
There are a couple of caveats to PhotoStamps, though, spurred by mail laws and the responsibility of representing a third party, in this case the U.S. Postal Service.
"There were many discussions," said Monica Surachi, a U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman, stressing that the personalized stamp offer is a trial run and that postal officials could revoke approval.
"This is a test," she said, that will be used to "base our decision on the response and the popularity."
All PhotoStamp images are subject to approval, and those of a pornographic or political nature are banned outright, as is copyrighted material. In a recent pretest trial, McBride said, his company had to reject a few photos - he didn't say of what - but most of those that came in were harmless pictures of people, especially babies.
Pets made up about 10 percent of the orders, followed closely by businesses sending in their logos. The stamps come in varying denominations on sheets of 20 - a standard 37 cent stamp costs about 85 cents with a photo.
The rejection list for the One of a Card Visa from First National Bank of Omaha is more detailed: No celebrities, athletes, entertainers or cartoons unless the cardholder was photographed with them; no brand or business names or logos; no nudity either artistic or otherwise; no phone numbers; no ads; no reference to the Olympics; no profanity.
Credit card companies began putting thumbnail mug-shot style photos on cards in the late 1990s for identification, but the One of a Card claims to be the first to do it for style.
"The One of a Card allows users to show personality whenever they shop," Tieger said, perhaps leading to a conversation with, say, the cashier.
It's not for everyone, acknowledged John C. Browning, president and chief executive of Custom Direct Inc., a Joppa company that takes orders to make photographs into bank checks via its Web site: www.unique checks.com.
"It's the same kind of process you go through with [personalized] license plates," he said. "Some think it's a great idea. Some wouldn't do it."