May 042012

Guillen and Bonta visit our mail boxes, but who makes the best impression?

Just got my first mailer from Rob Bonta, after getting four or five from Abel J. Guillen.  And for election junkies, here is my analysis 🙂  I’ll post pictures of the mailers after I scan them.

Bonta made a bad move by 1) having his mailers delivered after Guillen’s and 2) having them be very similar colors.  Guillen’s is more purplish, but they are too alike.  That means that after so much stuff from Guillen, I almost didn’t look at Bonta’s and just assumed it was another piece from Guillen.

Guillen gets brownie points for having gotten his first mailer out first, but loses them for having sent out so many in such a short period of time.  Granted, one of them is not from his campaign but from the Nurses association, but it’s so similar in look to the other ones that you wouldn’t be able to tell.  Four mailers make him look desperate and begin to make me wonder about his concern for the environment.   I think I’m going to scream if I get another mailer from him with my absentee ballot!

Guillen’s mailers wouldn’t be so annoying (and ineffective) if it wasn’t for the fact that they are too similar.  Two of them (granted, one is a walking piece but it was dropped in my mailbox) feature the exact same photograph of him.  Unfortunately, it’s not even a good photograph.  It includes too much of his body and given that he’s a big guy, that takes some attention away from his face.  Even worse is that the picture was taken in the sun so he’s squinting.  When you are hoping that people trust you, it’s actually important to have them be able to see your eyes.

But the similarity in the look of the mailers also implies a similarity in the message – so there is no incentive, even for an engaged voter, to look carefully at more than one of them, specially as they have nothing that visually grab you.

And even bigger sin, however, is the fact that Abel’s mailers hide his name.  The most important part of any campaign is to have voters remember your name (and hopefully in a good way).  Expert say that they need to see your name at least five times for it to stick in their minds.  That means that the first rule for a mailer is: have the name of the candidate prominently displayed on the first page.  And that means that it should be in larger letters and a different font than anything else on the mailer.  I truly don’t understand how Abel could have missed something so basic.   (Now, this rule can be broken when you make a mailer so compelling that people actually turn the page and/or read it – but a mere picture of the candidate won’t accomplish that).

I wish I didn’t have anything more to criticize, but Abel’s mailers also need to be faulted for their design and content.  Abel’s first mailer was an 8 1/2 by 11, double page affair.  Inside it had two photographs (including one of just himself, squiting, again) and so much text, in so many different fonts and so many different sections of the page (10 in addition to his logo) that makes it too busy and a nightmare to read.  Indeed, I had to force myself to read it, and couldn’t even do it on my first try.  I just wanted to close my eyes and run away from it.

His second double-paged mailer was slightly better.  It has a nice picture of a beautiful African-American professor (the race matters here, as Abel is trying to show that he has support from all demographics), but the name issue remains.  While the text inside is better organized (less prone to give me a headache), there is way too much of it.  He has four paragraphs about himself and five points on his accomplishments, plus a quote from a newspaper.  Again, I love Abel but even I will not read so much stuff.

The two postcards I’ve gotten from him are better in that they at least have less text but he seems to be unaware of the rule that 1) you should have only three items per mailer (that’s as much as a reader is willing to look at and remember) and 2) you shouldn’t have long paragraphs.  Candidates should remember that people get their mailers along with their mail – which means they are flipping through it and unless for some reason they grab them, they won’t do much more than glance at them.

And that may actually be a good thing – for the content on Guillen’s mailers is also repetitious.  He mostly talks about what he has accomplished in the Peralta Board, which would be great if he was running for re-election, but he’s running for Assembly.  If he’s going to talk about accomplishments, he needs to explicitly divorce at least some of them from the Board.

Now, I’ve only received that one postcard from Rob Bonta, so it may not be fair to compare him to Guillen yet.  After all, his mailers to be may be just atrocious.  But Bonta does several things right on this postcard.    First of all, his name is prominent on both sides of the postcard.  It’s in the style of his lawn sign (assuming he has one), which I wonder if is a trend our graphic designer started in Mike’s campaign or existed before that.  I might have liked the sign to be a bit larger, though.  Bonta should remember older people vote more and some of us can see less and less.

I also wish the picture of hims with his family – all smiling at an ice cream parlor – would be larger.  Now, I understand they had space limitations, but a good photo editor would have been able to delete the space between him and his younger children and crop the edges of the picture some more and thus be able to make their faces more prominent (remember those older people with bad eyesight).    On the plus side, the picture is wonderful.  It’s a perfect setting, it emphasizes the fact that he is a family man and his children and wife are just beautiful so it’s a pleasure to look at them (yeah, I think it’s horrible that beautiful people grab more attention, but it’s a fact of life).

The other side of the mailer is OK.  It has two pictures of him.  A larger one with firefighters, which is good, and another one sitting with a bunch of kids – which, again, is too small for me to see without effort.  He is smart and keeps to the rule of three, listing three accomplishments in which he bolds just a few words (so people can glance at them and get the point) and with less excessive text.  I do think, however, that the font should have been darker and the margins had a brighter color that would draw me more to that side.  Content wise, one of his three points wasn’t clearly linked to his work as Vice Mayor and showed benefits for people beyond his current stakeholders.

I am curious to see if anyone is interested on this type of  campaign analysis, so I would appreciate if you let me know by commenting, or at least “liking” or “sharing” this article on Facebook.  Thanks!

  3 Responses to “And the Assembly Mailer War Begins…”

  1. Having worked in campaigns for several decades, and produced hundreds of direct mail pieces for Democratic candidates and office holders, I enjoyed reading your analysis of the Abel Guillen campaign mail. Ironically, I agree with your conclusions; the mail is awful . On the other, the analysis is sophomoric, at best. It’s not about colors and graphics, or even about the number of mailers. It’s about message. All of the candidates’ mail for the 18th A.D. primary is LOUSY — slogans, rhetoric and empty words. When no one knows any of the candidates, such mail is not worth the dead trees it requires! My rule in political direct mail was always “never overestimate their knowledge; never underestimate their intelligence.” Guillen, and the other candidates, too, fail on both counts.

    • Bruce, I’ve been thinking about your comments. Before I wrote the critique of Abel and Bonta’s mailers (which I will expand on now that I’ve gotten a few more), I had started a posting about what good mailers look like. In that article I’ll delve more into the issue of content. Meanwhile, let me respond to your criticism.

      I do believe that “message” is important, but I think it’s of lower importance than other factors.

      First, a mailer does very little good if it’s automatically tossed into the recyclables bin without the voter looking at it. And to make a voter look at a mailer, it has to be visually enticing enough to intrigue him or interest her enough to take a closer look. This can be accomplished by good design and compelling photographs.

      But even the most compelling design will not make all voters look at the mailer, but most voters will at least glance at the mailer to know what it’s about before tossing it. You want to make sure that their eyes are drawn to your name. Look, name recognition is key. Linda Perry, for example, always gets elected to the ACDCC with a huge lead over other candidates, not because she campaigns, but because she’s been in local politics forever, she’s run for many offices, and voters recognize her name (even if they don’t quite remember who she is). A mailer is a complete waste if it doesn’t at least help with name recognition.

      I will argue again that the second main objective of the mailer is to sell the voter on whatever image of himself the candidate has chosen. “The family man who will work hard for his family and yours,” “the grassroots activist that gets things done”. Voters vote for candidates, not for ideas, and they vote for people they feel they would like. That’s why I think it’s very important that the candidates appear friendly and approachable on the mailers. You want to create an unconscious positive feeling about the candidate, because, in reality, most voters won’t really remember what each candidate stood for. Now, of course, this will play different in an election against an incumbent or a very well known candidate that already has an image.

      Only then, we get to the issue of messaging. And I agree that none of the candidates, so far, have done a good job of selling their ideas. I think, however, that that’s because none of the candidates has much of a platform. Guillen has some concrete ideas – like starting a state bank in California – but I don’t see any of them having a “vision”, a plan about how to make California work again. And it’s very, very hard to sell what you don’t have.

      Now, I think candidates are often reluctant to go negative, even in the sense of pointing out the problems they want to solve, because they are afraid that anything negative that they say will create negative association’s in voters’ minds. But I do think that in this political climate a candidate that came with a concrete plan, that showed himself to be something more than a dilettante, would be very welcome. That’s basically what Cassidy did when he ran for Mayor of San Leandro – but the image he decided on was the “competent professional with actual solutions” so his ideas worked in conjunction with his chosen persona. But again, to successfully sell this image, you need to have something to back it up with.

      • I appreciate your thoughtful comments, though I disagree with your analysis. The problem is that NO ONE, except a relative handful of insiders, know who any of the Assembly candidates are. So to introduce themselves, for the first time, to voters through mass mailers full of rhetoric and slogans is ineffective, not to mention wasteful. For example, Guillen promises to “fight for us against the special interests.” Did we seriously expect him to say he would “fight against us?” Similarly, Bonta claims to “fight for public school children, (along with motherhood and apple pie?)” The most ineffective of all is Young’s “Greetings from Belgium” mailer, which assumes you know the history of AC Transit bus purchases and that he, Mr. Young, is a transit director. The reality is that as many people know Young’s domestic violence issues as his elective office history (not very many people in either case!) The net result, in our seriously broken body politic is that two of the candidates will move forward to the November election, and repeat the same rhetoric over and over, ad nauseum. Its unfortunate, but politics, in our time, sheds heat and dead trees on the electorate, but offers almost nothing in terms of personal connection or relevant ideas.

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