A Functional Analysis of Presidential Direct Mail Advertising

Article excerpt

Most research into political campaign messages investigates television spots (see, e.g., Benoit, 1999; Diamond & Bates, 1992; Jamieson, 1996; Johnson-Cartee & Copeland, 1997; Kaid & Johnston, 2001; Kern, 1989) or debates (see, e.g., Benoit et al., 2002; Benoit & Wells, 1996; Bitzer & Rueter, 1980; Carlin & McKinney, 1994; Hellweg, Pfau, & Brydon, 1992; Hinck, 1993; Jamieson & Birdsell, 1988; Kraus, 1962, 1979, 2000; Lanoue & Schrott, 1991). Although these two message forms are without question important ones, this emphasis provides an incomplete picture of presidential campaigns. Direct mail advertising, sometimes known as pamphlets, brochures, or fliers, is a frequently used but rarely studied medium of political campaign communication. Pfau, Kenski, Nitz, and Sorenson (1990) reported that "Targeted or direct mail has a relatively long history dating back to 1914 when Woodrow Wilson sent out more than 300,000 pieces of campaign mail" (p. 26). This remains a popular medium for communicating with voters: A recent study by PQ Media revealed that more money was spent on direct mail advertising than any other medium (radio, cable, newspapers, online) except for broadcast television. The amount spent on direct mail increased from $242 million in 2000 to an estimated $564 million in 2004 (Lieberman, 2004). Direct mail is used for both for fund raising and persuading voters (Friedenberg, 1997; Shea, 1996). We are concerned here with the latter function: direct mail as a means of conveying candidates' messages to voters.

Trent and Friedenberg (2004) explain that brochures have two clear advantages, compared with other media: It is easy to target specific groups of voters (if one has their mailing addresses) and brochures allow longer messages (than, say, spot advertising). Shea (1996) explained further that:

   More than any other political technology, direct mail has changed
   dramatically in the past two decades. The availability of personal
   computers to produce high quality print jobs ... [and] compare
   available [mailing] lists, has created a direct-mail environment in
   which the individual preferences of voters can be addressed
   specifically in a mass mailing. (p. 210)

Of course, in the years since Shea made this observation, computer hardware and software have advanced considerably, which suggests that such campaign messages should be even easier to develop and distribute today.

Heller (1987) notes that direct mail is less expensive than television or radio. Hollihan (2001) elaborates an important implication of this advantage, explaining that "Direct mail is especially useful in campaigns where the voting districts and television media markets do not match up very well" (p. 102). He offers an example to illustrate this idea:

   The Los Angeles media market ... is the second largest in the
   nation. Seventeen commercial [television] stations serve 4.8
   million households in Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, San Bernadino,
   and Inyo Counties (Ansolabehere, Behr, & Iyengar, 1993). The
   average cost of a 30 second television ad in Los Angeles is
   $15,000. Television is too expensive and too inefficient for most
   candidates, and thus direct mail, even though it is also expensive,
   is often a better way to reach the voters. (p. 102)

Thus, cost is an advantage of direct mail advertising generally, and this is a particularly important advantage in some media markets.

Finally, Armstrong (1988) speculates that this medium allows stealthy attacks: "Attack your opponent's record on television and he will respond in kind. Attack your opponent in the mail, and he will never even know what hit him" (p. 66). Therefore, direct mail advertising is a medium with several important advantages in political campaigns.

Some may question the impact of these messages; however, evidence indicates that they reach many voters. …