Can Mint sell public on $1 coin?

Like the Ford Edsel and New Coke, the$1 coin can't seem to catch a break. But the U.S. Mint keeps trying it out, anyway.

Eighteen months ago, the Mint launched a series of $1 coins featuring the U.S. presidents. Today – in Charlotte and three other cities – it is formally announcing a campaign to encourage people to actually use them. One TV commercial features the Statue of Liberty stomping through Manhattan to buy a hot dog with a $1 coin. “The one-dollar coins. You'll want to get out and do your part too,” an announcer's voice says, noting the coins last for decades and are 100 percent recyclable.

If it seems familiar, that's because the Mint has tried this before. It rolled out the Sacagawea $1 coin eight years ago and ran commercials featuring George Washington's head, pasted on an actor's body, using the Sacagawea at bakeries and toll booths.

But the Sacagawea – and the Susan B. Anthony and Eisenhower coins before it – have met limited success, battling an American public stuck in its paper-dollar-lovin' ways. Three-fourths of Americans oppose replacing the dollar bill with a coin, according to an AP/Ipsos poll released last year, when the presidential coins launched. Consumers were evenly split on the idea of having both a bill and a coin.

Andy Brunhart, the Mint's deputy director, isn't deterred. Of the new marketing campaign, he says: “We think this is going to be a success. … We can change the way America uses its money, and Charlotte has the opportunity to lead the nation in this change.”

With previous campaigns promoting $1 coins, the Mint reached out only to consumers, Brunhart said. This time, it's also working closely with retailers – the people on the front line of coin distribution. TV and radio ads have already started. Billboards are on their way, as are vehicles that resemble armored trucks. The Mint will park them at store entrances and extol the values of the circular dollar to shoppers.

Use could save billions

The Mint has several reasons for pushing the $1 coin – which, by the way, is golden in color but made mostly of copper. Foremost, the Mint says the coin could eventually save the country billions of dollars. Though it costs more to produce (20 cents, compared to 3 cents for a bill), it can last a lot longer (30 or 40 years, compared to 21 months for a $1 bill). Also, when the coins reach the end of their life cycle, they're melted down and reminted. Most shredded dollar bills are taken to the landfill.

The Mint also points to educational and artistic values. “Many people cannot name all of the presidents,” legislators wrote in the order authorizing the coins. Also, the coins can “return circulating coinage to its position … as an object of aesthetic beauty in its own right.”

Still, consumers don't seem interested. They say they don't like change weighing down their pockets, or never use cash anyway. They say they don't like bothering cashiers with the coins, indicating that they still consider them an anomaly.

Brian Childers, a 28-year-old Mooresville resident, remembers that he was given all the $1 coins from the tip jar when he was a newbie at Starbucks last year.

“But after I worked there a couple of weeks, they started to like me,” said Childers, now an IT manager. “Once I got established there, I never got them again.”

Retailers, for their part, have told the Mint they're afraid that clerks will have to explain the coins to customers, slowing down checkout lines. At a forum in 2006, they told the Mint they didn't want to pay to retrofit any machines that dispense coins.

They also said that coins are more expensive to process than dollars, since their weight means bigger fees from armored car carriers.

But the Mint counters that many vending machines already take the coin. And it's providing retailers with explanatory materials to post in their shops, though Brunhart declined to say which stores he's working with, because some agreements are still pending.

U.S. ‘a little behind on this'

Brunhart says he uses dollar coins every day and has convinced his wife to do the same.

He notes that he has international precedence on his side. Australia abandoned the dollar note in 1984, and Canada followed suit in 1987, he said.

“I hesitate to say this,” said Brunhart, who came to the Mint in May and is a 30-year Navy veteran, “but the United States is a little behind on this.”

He's got legislators on his side as well: Congress is requiring federal organizations, the post office, transit systems that receive federal funding and any businesses – including vending machines – on federal property to accept the coins, and to post notices saying so.

His is not an uphill battle, he insists.

The new coins are being released at a rate of four presidents per year. They're up to No. 7 – Andrew Jackson, the one who shuttered the national bank.