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Consumer Reports

OOPS! American Greetings distributing 'minstrel' Valentine card | (KRT) American Greetings Corp. calls it a regrettable printing error.

Somehow, boxes of SpongeBob SquarePants Valentine's Day cards are popping up in Detroit Wal-Mart stores - but the popular cartoon character found inside isn't his traditional yellow color.

He's black. And with his trademark big teeth and wide eyes, this SpongeBob seems similar to offensive images of African-Americans portrayed in minstrel shows decades ago.

American Greetings officials said Thursday they were surprised and puzzled when the Detroit Free Press made them aware of a complaint about the product.

"We absolutely fell out of our chairs when we saw it," said Carol Miller, director of business development for the Cleveland-based company. "We're obviously going to be talking to Wal-Mart as well as Nickelodeon ... to offer our sincere apologies for this product making it to market."

Miller said the cards, which were printed and packaged in China, are mistakes, but she and other officials said they were trying to determine how that happened.

David Blinderman, director of global product development for the company, said the printing facility is one of the company's most reliable.

"Culturally, the guys on press in China wouldn't have the faintest idea of who a SpongeBob was or who a black SpongeBob was," Blinderman said.

Jemeka Garcia of Flint Township, Mich., was skeptical of a mistake, in part because the cards appear to be well made. Garcia and her husband, Scott, complained to the Detroit Free Press earlier this week after their 6-year-old daughter discovered the different SpongeBob. The family purchased the cards at a Wal-Mart near their home so the girl could hand them out to her first-grade classmates.

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"I want to know why the person did it," Jemeka Garcia said Thursday. "That's kind of a horrible prank. And what if some kid gets it" as a valentine?

A Wal-Mart official said customers who want refunds can have them, but there were no plans to take the boxes off shelves. "It was a very popular item and there aren't very many left out there," said corporate spokeswoman Danette Thompson. She said the company had received no other complaints.

The cards - branded as "Nickelodeon 34 Foil Valentines" and selling for $2.74 - are exclusive to Wal-Mart. Officials said they were widely distributed across the country, but they would not say how many had been produced. The Free Press checked a Wal-Mart in Roseville, Mich., and found the cards. There are 68 Wal-Mart stores in the state.

SpongeBob stars on the Nickelodeon cable channel. The show chronicles the cluelessly optimistic meanderings of a bright-eyed sponge, who lives in a pineapple in the underwater city of Bikini Bottom.

Jemeka Garcia said she's already gone out and replaced the offensive SpongeBobs for her daughter.

"I went and bought her some Scooby-Doos."

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© 2004, Detroit Free Press Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services