In the mid-1990s, direct mail was a new medium in North Carolina politics. In fact, targeted communications was a tactic generally reserved for Congressional races and those at the top of the statewide ballot. Legislative and local races relied on the time honored tradition of stroking the right precinct chair or county boss and ads in the local newspaper.
North Carolinians had never seen the flood of glossy mailers from down ballot races that now inundate mailboxes. We described mail as “television in the mailbox” because they were based on images and headlines with relatively little copy. And it worked.
Democrats were the early adapters, introduced to mail by cutting edge caucus organizations that sprang up in response the drubbing Democrats took in 1994. We dropped five, six, seven pieces of unanswered mail. In the North Carolina House and Senate, Democrats made big gains in 1996 and, by 1998, held at least partial control of both houses until the Republican wave of 2010.
But mail evolved over that time, in large part because voters got more savvy about it. In the early days, our mail was over the top but it worked. We sent pieces with inmates pushing kids to highlight Republicans’ opposition to requiring background checks for day care workers. We showed a child drinking from a gas can to illustrate the GOP’s reluctance to force businesses to clean up old tanks leaking gasoline into ground water. They were shocking but they got voters’ attention and educated them about the issues.
Ten years later, those images wouldn’t work as well. After a decade of being flooded with mail for every race from city council on up, voters became more skeptical and the shocking images lost a lot their punch. Voters didn’t trust them and wrote them off as just more negative mail.
The point here, isn’t that mail got less effective. It’s that voters got more savvy. Mail is still the most effective and efficient method to reach voters in a lot of elections. But it needs to respect voters’ intelligence. They now want information, not shocking images.
I think we are seeing this same phenomena playing out in big money races at the top of the ticket. In May, Robin Hudson survived an onslaught of negative ads that portrayed her as soft on child abusers. Last week, Mark Walker clobbered Phil Berger, Jr. despite being outspent on television by huge margins. And we saw similar outcomes in other states like Eric Cantor’s upset in Virginia and Thad Cochran’s near loss in Mississippi.
Voters, I believe, are getting their information from places other than just paid media and they’ve become inherently distrustful of political advertising. In this context, consultants need to respond to these changes. Voters are going to respond less to shocking images and outlandish claims and more to a just-the-facts’ma’am approach to communications. They still want, and need, information, but they want it to be believable.
And consultants need to deliver messages in new mediums. Voters have more access to unfiltered information than ever before. Instead of just trying to force-feed them information through mail and television, campaigns and consultants need to figure out how to influence the conversations voters are having about issues and candidates online.
In the world of political communication, we’re at a turning point. So much political advertising has left voters skeptical at the same time they have the ability to easily access more information and also learn what like-minded people are saying. The business world is making the transition with about 35% of advertising budgets going to new media. The political world is slower to adapt, spending less than 5% on new media.
In the future, the campaigns that figure out the mix between the new mediums and traditional ones and engage voters with messages that are believable instead of kitschy will be successful. The ones that don’t, won’t.
Image is mail piece we dropped against the Speaker of the Wisconsin House in a Congressional race in 2006.