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The owner of a $35,000 Lexus living next door to the owner of a $9,500 Hyundai might receive political fundraising requests identical in every respect but one-the Lexus owner is asked to contribute $500 while the Hyundai owner is asked for only $100.

That attests to the level of sophistication achievable by direct marketing operations for whom the key to a successful campaign is the ability to create mailing lists so refined that laws of probability give way to theorems of predictability.

And that has come to political marketing, as shown this 1994 election season by the fundraising success of one candidacy-the Virginia senatorial campaign of Oliver North.

Veteran observers say the North campaign will raise $15 million to $20 million, or more, by Election Day, besting the record set in 1984 by Sen. Jesse Helms (R., N.C.), largely via mail solicitations.

"The people in [political] direct mail are not innovators but they pick up quickly on the developments from commercial marketing," says Cris Arterton, dean of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington Unviersity.

More sophisticated means more refined, more precise, and less wasteful.

"The major difference in direct mail today is the capacity to more finely refine your lists," says Ladonna Lee, president of political consultancy Eddie Mahe Co., Washington. "It means using census data and non-political data together with political files and mapping capacity."

"The refined ability to target audiences, whether using psychodemographics or better lists, is the biggest change in political mail," says Ben Goddard, the creative mind behind the Health Insurance Association of America's "Harry and Louise" TV ads.

"A few years ago, people figured out how to get voter lists and personalize mailings, and they went crazy with that idea. But now things have turned more creative and graphic," says Mr. Goddard, president of Goddard*Claussen/First Tuesday. "In the last couple of election cycles, the creative quality of mail has improved substantially with more graphic impact, dramatic photography or headlines, and odd-sized pieces that jump out of the mailbox."

Political marketers face the same clutter problem as commercial marketers, however it is exacerbated by a compacted time frame.

"Particularly in heavily mailed states-the larger states-you have to improve the quality of your mail message just to maintain equity with the competition," Mr. Goddard notes. "In the week before election day in California, depending on what area ... you could be receiving six to a dozen pieces of mail a day in the last week to 10 days. So the stuff must be a hell of a lot better than the rest to break through."

Increasingly popular are candidate videos mailed to voters much as a traditional campaign brochure or newsletter.

Though first used in the 1980s, political videos didn't broach the mainstream of political weaponry until the early 1990s when duplication costs fell to a couple of bucks.

"Videos are viable in major media markets where the cost of media is extraordinary and where your candidate is running for a lower office, maybe municipal judge in Beverly Hills," says Frank Tobe, president, Below, Tobe & Associates, Marina Del Rey, Calif. "It will be new and probably looked at ... if they don't think it's a bomb."

Congressional candidates in high-cost media markets also might avail themselves of campaign videos, Mr. Tobe says, at least until enough candidates use them that they lose their novelty.

One aspect of political direct marketing that generates some disagreement among professionals is whether response rates have risen concurrently with technological advances.

Some say no, but Mr. Tobe believes response rates have improved "because of the sophistication mail only to the right people in the first place." At the same time, however, the electorate is diminishing, "which is a shame for the electoral process but a fact of business."

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