Direct Mail Marketing and Politics

Dave Johnson at Seeing the Forest, in a post titled “The Arrogance of the Informed”, goes through the ABC’s of marketing in an attempt to educate the clueless. It’s a noble effort and certainly welcome as a first step. Unfortunately, Dave is rehashing an argument that was all but settled 50 years ago. But he’s a software engineer, and we can’t expect him to know that.

There is a REASON that direct mail is all so similar and reads the way it does. BECAUSE IT WORKS! Because they have been doing it for decades and have studied it and refined it and refined it and tested it and refined it again, and it makes money – more money than other things they have tried because more people respond to it. And by extension, I came to understand that there is a reason that there are all those stupid ads on TV that we all hate, and ads in magazines, and billboards, and posters in subways, and huge ads on the sides of buses. And I came to understand why big companies spend BILLIONS on advertising when they are otherwise so cheap they ration pencils to their employees. BECAUSE ADVERTISING/MARKETING WORKS!

And I came to understand why they use such stupid appeals that are insulting to me. Because it works on most people, even if it does not work on me. And this is because I am informed BUT MOST PEOPLE ARE NOT.

This came to Dave as a blinding flash of unexpected insight, and good for him, but anybody who has ever lived in the trenches with the people at whom those pitches are aimed figured that out ten minutes after they landed. Yes, mass marketing does work on the masses of the uninformed, and no, more sophisticated and honest and less irritating and stupid marketing does NOT. Vance Packard told us that 50 years ago, and he told us how and why Mad Ave did what they did. None of it is exactly a secret, except maybe from software engineers.

Dave wants his audience to understand and accept the fact that not everybody knows as much as they do–a good point–and that they have to begin to be willing to use the same techniques the other side uses because they WORK:

The people behind the Republicans…are people who DO understand regular Americans. We should learn from them. That bulge in Bush’s flight suit and the Marlboro man are are both designed to convey simple, basic, short messages on an emotional level to specific target audiences. That’s marketing.

Simple, basic, short messages that reach the target audience on an emotional level, repeated and repeated.

I fear that we online consumers of news suffer the arrogance of the informed. I think we all, bloggers and readers alike, might benefit from taking a step back, seeing a bigger picture – one that encompasses millions of less informed voters – and trying to understand what THEY think and how THEY react to things they hear.

And so we would, to some degree, but marketing isn’t nearly as simple as Dave suggests. If it’s just a matter of copying the marketing techniques of the other side, why hasn’t that worked very well for the Democrats, who have, after all, been trying to do it for 30 years? We’ve had some success but not as much or as consistently as the right. Why not?

The standard answer among liberals (which Dave suggests but doesn’t actually say) is that we haven’t been willing to make our message simple enough–that we haven’t paid enough attention to the power of visuals, sound bites, and staging when we mount a campaign; that we insist on assuming too much knowledge on the part of our audience when in fact, as Dave says, most of us don’t have the time, energy or inclination to make the effort required for us to be–and stay–informed; that we don’t get out in front fast enough, attack often enough, or tell as many comforting lies. And he is clearly implying that it’s about goddam time we did.

But there is a fundamental difference here that amateurs like Dave can’t see and that even the pros who work for Dems and ought to know better seem to have missed.

Mad Ave techniques are designed to sell people things they don’t want, or don’t know they want. They’re designed to persuade people to do something they had no intention of doing. They’re designed to promote needs that didn’t exist before marketers created them. IOW, their purpose is to overcome–or begin the process of overcoming–the innate sales resistance of the average guy whose first reaction to anything new is, “I don’t want that. I’ve been doing fine without it.”

This approach works for the GOP because they are fully aware that what they want to do is NOT something that most people want done. Most people don’t want the environment trashed, the govt sold to the highest bidder, the economy in the tank for all but the richest of us, the poor mercilessly reamed, the old and sick abandoned, or an empire built on their backs. Bernie Sanders, in an article for The Progressive that I wrote about last Saturday ( “We Are the Majority”–read it if you haven’t yet), puts it this way:

Our struggle, the struggle of millions of people for 150 years, has been for basic human dignity. It has been a struggle to create a country that belongs to all of us and not just the people on top, and that is our struggle of today.

Sometimes progressives say, well, you know, we’re right, but we’re really kind of fringe. Our views are not reflective of a vast majority of the people. After all, Bush, well, was almost elected, and there is rightwing control of the House of Representatives, led by a gentleman named Tom DeLay. There is rightwing control of the United States Senate. Very few people in the media reflect our point of view. So they must be representing the majority of the people, and we’re just a smart minority of the people.

I want you to disabuse yourselves of that notion. You represent mainstream America. We are the majority.

Go out on Main Street, stand at the corner, and ask people a simple question. Tell them you’re doing an informal poll, and ask them if they want 40 percent of the tax breaks, hundreds of billions of dollars, to go to the top 1 percent, or whether those breaks should be spread around more fairly and be used for education or lowering the deficit. Then tell me who is “fringe.” Ask them if we should maintain our disintegrating health care nonsystem or establish a universal health care system that guarantees health care for all. Then tell me who is “fringe.” Ask them if we should continue to let polluters destroy our environment, or move to safe, sustainable energy. Then tell me who is “fringe.


The Republican leadership…know[s that] when you lay out their program about the most important economic issues facing America, it ends up that they are representing the interests of 2 percent of the population. You can’t win an election with the support of 2 percent.

The Republican problem is the same as that of the proponderance of Mad Ave clients: convincing us to buy something we don’t want, something that may even go against our own basic self-interest. This is precisely the problem marketing techniques were designed to solve.

But, as Sanders makes so plain, that is NOT our problem. We don’t need to convince people to buy something they don’t want, we need to convince them to buy something they think they already have (Constitutionally-protected freedoms, for one), or that they can have something they want but are convinced they can never have (universal health-care, anyone?), or that they don’t want what they’ve been conditoned to believe they do want (protection from everything that scares them, for instance). This is a fundamentally different problem from the one that Mad Ave techniques were meant to solve, so it isn’t particularly surprising, if you think about it, that they don’t work very well when applied to it.

Consider the anti-drug advertising campaigns put together by the brightest minds on the Ave since the 80’s–Just Say No, This Is Your Brain on Drugs, DARE, and the more recent You’re Helping Support Terrorists. All of these campaigns–and all of the others like them–were miserable failures, cultural jokes practically from the git-go. All these high-powered persuasion devices so successful at selling soap, cars, and Republican fantasies for so long, had ZERO appreciable effect on the sale or consumption of illegal drugs. Why? Because they were built from materials created to make people desire something, not materials created to kill that desire. They thought you could use the same material for both, but it turned out that a) convincing people they want something they don’t want is a lot easier than convincing them that they don’t want something they’ve decided they do want, and b) materials designed for one situation don’t work on the other.

For years now the debate around political advertising in left-wing circles has swirled around the problem Phaedrus puts succinctly: “I mean, if we have to become the [new] marketing (read ‘lying’) masters to defeat the [old] marketing masters, how is that a victory?” We have argued ad infinitum whether or not we should stoop to their level, steal their tricks, sink as low as they do. The answer is an emphatic NO, and for one simple reason: IT WON’T WORK.

What we need to do and have needed to do for the last 35 years or so is to go higher, not lower. We need to use marketing techniques in the way they were designed to be used–to convince people that they want what we’re selling. How? Once again, Bernie points the way:”Our struggle, the struggle of millions of people for 150 years, has been for basic human dignity.” There’s the frame, there’s the message, there’s the core of the marketing campaign. Basic human dignity. Fairness, justice, tolerance. The Bush radcons need to be fought on our ground with simple truths: their policies aren’t fair, they offer a justice that is only for those who can afford to buy it, they refuse to tolerate any who disagree with them. There are lots of examples of these truths that even the uninformed know about.

We need to turn the GOP’s Mighty Wurlitzer back on itself, as Michael Moore did accidentally when he used the word “deserter” as a joke. Radcon conservatives are notoriously thin-skinned with a marked tendency to over-react, and the public is starting to notice it. They don’t like it much, either. Keep it going. Attack but attack from the high ground. Remind people that the idea of America has never been about what the Pubs are selling–selfishness, bigotry, and fear–but about a square deal, a fair chance, and watching out for the other guy. Keep it simple, keep it grounded in common history, keep it connected to our long-standing dreams, our sleeping ideals. Make it point to something higher, something bigger than health care, logging in the ANWAR, or even the PATRIOT Acts. Make it point to the meaning of America from its very beginnings, and attack the radcons for subverting, distorting and exploiting that meaning for selfish, unfair reasons of their own.

Sell us what we have forgotten we want: the idea that a country–any country but especially America–is judged on its generosity, not its greed; its tolerance, not its hatreds; its sense of fair play, not its exploitation of privilege; its courage, not its surrender to fear. Acknowledge the real terrorist threat and ask people to sacrifice some of their comforts because it’s the only way we’ll ever really be safe. Call people to a cause higher than their bank accounts. They will answer. In their hearts, even the uninformed know what’s at stake. They just need somebody to put it into words for them.

(Thanks to No Fear of Freedom for the link)


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