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You've Got Mail: Campaigns Still Rely On Snail Mail

Sep 21, 2012
Originally published on September 28, 2012 5:08 pm

For those of you who feel you've had quite enough of the political ads airing every night on your TV screens, well, get ready for another sort of deluge.

In the coming weeks, candidates will bombard your mailboxes with ads. It may seem old-fashioned, but the consultants who devise direct-mail campaigns have become sophisticated about knowing whom to reach and what to say.

"It's almost because of the changing media landscape that direct mail remains relevant," says Anil Mammen, who runs a small direct-mail shop in Washington, D.C.

On his office door are reminders — the number of days remaining before Election Day; the number of pieces of mail that must get out by then.

'It's Forced Upon Them'

"Direct mail is one of the few mediums left where you can go reach a voter and convince your voter to consume your information, without them having to choose to do it," says Mammen, who works for Democratic candidates and campaigns. "It's forced upon them."

He hands me a folder containing some recent pieces: There are colorful pamphlets for candidates for state House, governorships and Congress. A ballot initiative in Maine promoting same-sex marriage has a picture of a church.

A number of them, however, are negative. Five stern-faced seniors stare out from one brochure over the warning, "Don't mess with our retirement."

Mammen says direct mail is an ideal medium for negative ads. People are more inclined to believe what they read.

"You can show the citation. You can show the proof if there's a court document. You can show the court document maybe not in its entirety but enough of it," he says. "You can deliver negative messages that require a hurdle of believability. That's what direct mail is really good at."

The piece featuring the stern-faced seniors went out to Virginia voters two years ago. It was sent by the campaign of Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly against his Republican opponent, Keith Fimian.

"We show here The New York Times writing an article about Fimian where he says 'in favor of possible privatizing of Social Security,' so its not our campaign telling you, it's The New York Times telling you this, a credible source," Mammen says. "These things can be accomplished in a direct-mail piece."

In that midterm election, Connolly went on to defeat Fimian, winning another term in office.

Targeting Specific Voters

Campaigns are spending about 15 percent of their ad budgets on direct mail, says Kantar Media/CMAG, a campaign-ad tracking firm.

Costas Panagopoulos, who teaches political science at Fordham University in New York, says direct mail — unlike broadcast media, TV and radio — is a great way to reach very specific targeted groups of voters

"Political campaigns can use the mountains of available data, demographic, psychographic data about, you know, who people are, what their gender is, what their occupations are, as well as things like what magazines they subscribe to or whether they have children or a pet at home or whether they have a gold [credit] card," Panagopoulos says.

One of the pioneers of employing those data is Hal Malchow. Now retired, the Democratic-aligned consultant says politics got too negative for him. Two years ago, Malchow adapted a way to increase voter turnout with direct mail.

"We mailed a lot of pieces of mail in the last election in 2010 that said, 'Thank you for voting in 2008. We know voting takes time and trouble. ... How you vote is secret but whether or not you voted is a matter of public record and we hope when we check the rolls after the election, we'll be able to thank you again,' " Malchow says.

Malchow said that particular mailing in New Jersey improved the turnout by 2.5 percentage points. Malchow also says that candidates shouldn't go overboard when it come to mailing out eye-catching ads that may wind up in the trash.

His tests show when it comes to political mail, less is more.

"You know when you get your mail, the IRS never puts any pictures or colors on their envelopes. Generally, the most important mail has the least design to it, and I think when you receive your mail and you receive something where it doesn't have a lot of graphics shouting for your attention, you assume its more important," Malchow says.

Like taxes, direct mail isn't going away anytime soon. This year, campaigns are expected, Panagopoulos says, to spend more than $1 billion to get their messages delivered to your door.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And for those of you who feel you've had quite enough of the political ads airing every night on your TV screens, well, get ready for another sort of deluge. In the coming weeks, candidates will be bombarding your mailboxes. It may seem like an old-fashioned technology, but the consultants who devised direct-mail campaigns have become very sophisticated about knowing who to reach, and what to say. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It's kind of quaint, in an era of texting, Twitter and emails. Still, old-fashioned snail mail remains an important way for political candidates to get out their message. Anil Mammen certainly thinks so.

ANIL MAMMEN: It's almost because of the changing media landscape that direct mail remains relevant.

NAYLOR: Mammen runs a small direct-mail shop in a Washington, D.C., office building. On the door are reminders - the number of days remaining before Election Day, and the number of pieces of mail that have to get out by then.

MAMMEN: Direct mail is one of the few medium left where you can go reach a voter, and convince your voter to consume your information, without them having to choose to do it. It's forced upon them.

NAYLOR: Mammen works for Democrats. He gave me a folder containing some of his recent pieces. There are colorful pamphlets for candidates for the statehouse, governorships and Congress. A ballot initiative in Maine, promoting same-sex marriage, has a picture of a church. A number of them, however, have a negative tone. Five stern-faced seniors stare out from one brochure over the warning, "Don't Mess With Our Retirement." Mammen says direct mail is an ideal medium for negative ads. People, he says, are more inclined to believe what they read.

MAMMEN: You can show the citation. You can show the proof. If there's a court document, you can show the court document - maybe not in its entirety, but enough of it. You can deliver negative messages that require a hurdle of believability. That's what direct mail is really good at.

NAYLOR: The piece featuring the stern-faced seniors went out to Virginia voters two years ago. It was sent by the campaign of Democratic congressman Gerry Connolly against his opponent, a Republican named Keith Fimian.

MAMMEN: And we show, here, the New York Times writing an article about Fimian, where he says - in favor of possible privatizing of Social Security. So it's not our campaign telling you; this is the New York Times telling you this - a credible source. These things can be accomplished in a direct-mail piece.

NAYLOR: Campaigns are spending about 15 percent of their ad budgets on direct mail, according to Kantar Media/CMAG, a campaign-ad tracking firm. Costas Panagopoulos teaches political science at Fordham University, in New York. He says direct mail - unlike broadcast media, TV and radio - is a great way to reach very specific, targeted groups of voters.

COSTAS PANAGOPOULOUS: Political campaigns can use the mountains of available data - demographic, psychographic data about, you know, who people are, what their gender is, what their occupations are; as well as things like what magazines they subscribe to, or whether they have children or a pet at home, or whether they have a gold card.

NAYLOR: One of the pioneers of employing that data is Hal Malchow. Now retired, he says politics got too negative for him. Malchow devised a way to increase voter turnout with direct mail. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Costas Panagopolous, not Malchow, devised a way to increase voter turnout with direct mail.]

HAL MALCHOW: We mailed a lot of pieces of mail in the last election - in 2010 - that said, thank you for voting in 2008. We know voting takes time and trouble. Whether you - how you vote is secret, but whether or not you vote is a matter of public record. And we hope, when we check the rolls after the election, we'll be able to thank you again.

NAYLOR: Malchow said that particular mailing, in New Jersey, improved the turnout by 2 and a half percentage points. Malchow also says that candidates shouldn't go overboard when it come to mailing out eye-catching ads, that may wind up in the trash. His tests show when it comes to political mail, less is more.

MALCHOW: You know, when you get your mail, the IRS never puts any pictures or colors on their envelopes. Generally, the most important mail has the least design to it. And I think, when you receive your mail - and you receive something where it doesn't have a lot of graphics shouting for your attention, you assume it's more important.

NAYLOR: Like taxes, direct mail isn't going away anytime soon. This year, campaigns are expected to spend over a billion dollars to get their messages delivered to your door. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.