Election Marketing Sucks

I’ve complained before about crappy campaign web sites, but this year I think election marketing in general sucks, from robocalls to direct mail to those darned web sites. And I’m not the only one: Marketing guru Seth Godin offers marketing lessons from the U.S. elections. Today’s election day, so it’s all over. Let’s take a look at what works and what doesn’t.

Election Calls
In Minnesota robo-calls are illegal. Yet that hasn’t stopped two robo-calls from coming through, one from the Campaign for Change-DFL and one from Minnesotan Citizens Concerned for Life. I guess that’s one from each side of the political spectrum, so at least they’re fairly breaking the law.

In response to that anti-robo-call law in Minnesota, the McCain campaign has had real people making those calls and just reading the robo-call script. That’s perfectly legal, but it’s also perfectly insane.

I’ve received two of these calls and both times the caller read the script so fast I could barely understand them. The first time I started laughing and the caller just kept reading faster. The second call came on Sunday and I started laughing and asked if the guy could read it any faster. He laughed, said “You want me to take it up a notch? I’m up for it. Have a good day.” And he hung up. I’m not sure what either of those calls were supposed to accomplish. If you can’t do robo-calls, what’s the point of paying someone to read the same script? It’s a real person, why not have a real conversation with me? A conversation is much more likely to change minds than speed-reading a script.

Web Sites
Last night I spent two hours researching all the local campaigns for things you don’t normally hear about, like Supreme Court, Appeals Court, District Court, etc. As I went farther and farther down the ballot it became increasingly harder to find information. Local voter guides would offer a paragraph from each candidate, but every candidate for Soil & Water Manager says water is important.

The candidates who did have web sites had an appalling hierarchy of information. Their sites were loaded with buzz words and political speak, and rarely did they explain their stance or fully address issues. After growing frustrated with one candidate’s four page web site, I googled Bill Jungbauer only to find that he had a blog. (a blog touting 2010—what has he already conceded the 2008 election?) Why didn’t he link to the blog from his web site?

My favorite was third-party U.S. Senate candidate Dean Barkley who’s been polling in the teens (meaning this isn’t a joke of a campaign). Thanks to the poor design I completely missed the site’s menu and had to download a PDF to see his stance on the issues. Even worse, as a third party candidate he had a prime opportunity to show how he differed from the two mainstream candidates—especially in a bitter race between incumbent Norm Coleman and the outspoken Al Franken. Where was the chart showing how Barkley had a better stance on the issues than his rivals? As a third party candidate those stark differences (hopefully) are what make you stand out. Put them front and center.

Other info on web sites that’s not going to help your cause: Talking about conspiracy theories and including why your spouse and kids think I should vote for you.

No Web Sites
But what’s even worse than poor web sites is no web sites. I couldn’t believe that in the bitter mayoral battle in my town neither candidate had a web site. The city council and soil and water manager candidates also had no web sites. Now I realize those are small time races, but how can you be running a serious campaign and not have some kind of online presence? Even setting up a free blog site and listing your basic qualifications would be better than nothing. Why would you spend money on yard signs that don’t actually communicate any position you stand for when you could spend a couple hours and put up a web site showcasing any number of things?

Direct Mail
The other medium that has me scratching my head is direct mail. The other day we received 16 political fliers in the mail. I think we get the most from Senate candidate Al Franken. And he doesn’t just send postcards, he sends these slick, multi-page brochures. The direct mail deluge has been coming from all candidates and all levels.

What confuses me about it is that the copywriting on the direct mail pieces doesn’t tell you anything. It’s always completely biased info with little sense of context or fairness. Candidates continue to throw out claims that have been debunked by fact checking (which is a problem regardless of medium). For the national and state-wide campaigns it’s not as big of a deal because I’ve heard both sides and I know what angle the copy is taking. But for the local races it’s especially frustrating. You can’t sum up every position you take on a 5×8 postcard.

It’d be nice if the campaigns could actually communicate honestly and directly. Stick with one issue on your postcard, and give us some context and balance. And be fair about your opponent’s position.

E-mail Tally
Earlier this year I talked about how I asked each presidential campaign a question and was then inundated with e-mail (my question was never answered). Since submitting those questions on each campaign’s site on June 23, I’ve received exactly 120 e-mails from Barack Obama and three from John McCain. How’s that for a contrast? And I don’t think it’s a good contrast for either of them.

I’m Done Now
I’d be curious to know if anyone has been convinced by a robo-call or a postcard or an e-mail asking for a donation. Political marketing has certainly come a long way and the major candidates are doing impressive things, but I’m amazed at how ridiculous much of the marketing is. Thankfully it all ends today.

6 thoughts on “Election Marketing Sucks”

  1. Great points, Kevin. I was thinking the same thing regarding the local candidates and lack of info on them. But then, out of the entire back page of the voter sheet, there was something like 9 out of 12 that were running unopposed, so they obviously don’t care at that point. Those candidates probably don’t even have yard signs.

    It made me think, though, how easy it would be to get elected if going against someone who has no actual info that they’re providing to the constituency.

  2. Gasp! What?!? The water and soil conservation district people were for clean water? Well, good for them. I didn’t vote in those races because I was too lazy to do research. Now it sounds like I could have taken time to do research and found nothing.

    I agree with your Robo-call and mailings comments. I don’t think we got an Al Franken multi-page thingie. Or it could have gone in the trash before I got home. And I never answer the phone unless I specifically know the caller, so I missed any Robo calls. So sad…

  3. Excellent thoughts and well stated, Kevin. In Silicon Valley, CA all of the candidates had websites, and pretty tolerable ones (if not really good ones). There were also sites that did an excellent job helping you compare candidates (like smartvoter.org. Up here in Forest Lake, MN, there is no such luxury. Apparently I’m too out in the boonies for sites like that to help me out.

    So, I had to use the local paper to figure out who these people were. It was messy and it involved tape and scissors. And I struggled when I only had a few sentences to go on for some of the candidates. I guess I just did the best I could with what I had.

    Sidenote, does anyone else feel creeped out voting for people who have no opponent? Seriously, it could have been Freddy Kreuger and I would have been none the wiser.

  4. RE: Robo calls.

    We are fighting back.

    The National Political Do Not Contact Registry is a non-profit, non-partisan group working to get political calls added to do not call registries.

    Join us.

    Shaun Dakin
    CEO and Founder

  5. Kevin,

    I just checked out your site. This post on election marketing is very close to understanding election marketing, but you need to understand candidates better.

    The main thing to understand is that most candidates are seriously technology impaired. Walk in to their homes and the VCR will be blinking 12:00. If the VCR is not blinking I guarantee someone like me is a good friend and set it for them. Most don’t know how to check (if they even have) email. I am reminder of this ever spring when some past candidate I gave a CD with contributors in a csv file asks me to send that same information to some other candidate. Who I will have to walk though opening it and explain a spread sheet can be used to mail merge, then of course I try and sell them my software that makes all there problems go away.

  6. And that says a lot about a candidate. I don’t expect everyone to be a tech expert, but if they can’t find someone to help them figure out technology, I question their ability to lead.

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