Sutton, Gloria, Afterimage
Oliver North's campaign for a 1994 Virginia Senatorial seat offers insight into an increasingly popular marketing tool: direct-mail video.(1) Although direct-mail videos began circulating in the United States around 1989 and are also used by the left, North's campaign illustrates their use by conservative factions for promotion, campaigning, and fundraising. Direct-mail video is a hybrid of conventional direct-mail print promotion and political television commercials. Historically, religious groups, especially televangelicals, use direct mail and air-time solicitation very effectively to create and maintain donor bases. Often televangelical organizations use direct mail not only as a means to solicit additional funds from first-time contributors, but also as a means of establishing a basis for a lifetime of membership and contribution.(2) It is useful in evaluating media policy on the right to recognize a relationship between the direct mail strategies of religious organizations involved in political lobbying and conservative non-religious organizations that currently share political concerns.
Conservative political consulting groups look to VHS video as a campaigning tool for two reasons: cost effectiveness and demographic control. In certain media markets, the cost of broadcasting one-minute or even 30-second commercials is too expensive for campaign budgets and often is not guaranteed to reach the group of voters for which the massage is intended. Direct-mail video has been used by candidates and organizations to customize their message for a targeted audience and deliver it directly to their mailbox. Virginia voters who fit the North campaign's target demographic, for instance, received an 11-minute VHS video with customized commentary and a mini biography of the former Marine Colonel.
A critical component of the overall effectiveness of a direct-mail video campaign is the compilation of honed, up-to-date mailing lists culled from various databases. The North campaign was able to raise nearly $18 million by election day, by using databases compiled from lists of donors to the 1987 North trial defense fund and the Freedom Alliance, a non-profit group formed by North in 1990 to promote conservative causes.(3)
VHS video has become an economically viable format for campaigns and interest groups to disseminate information due to innovations in duplication technology, the availability of lighter materials (particularly plastic cassette shells manufactured in China), and general vendor price competition. A duplication industry spokesperson explains that a 10-minute video produced in 1990 with a self-mailing envelope that cost $2.76 per tape in batches of 100,000 now costs only $1.23 per tape. Using lighter shells lowers postage cost and allows VHS tapes to be mailed at a third-class bulk rate. Recent innovations in packaging provide self-mailing cassette covers, further reducing postage and material costs. The most significant reduction in cost is due to the technological advances in video equipment. Cassettes can now be duplicated five times faster than real-time duplication without losing any level of resolution or quality. At large duplication facilities this factor allows tapes from multiple projects to be dubbed simultaneously, cutting labor costs and therefore wholesale and retail prices.
Direct-mail videos average five-10 minutes running time and have been used in a variety of spheres. Direct-mail videos were used in presidential races by both George Bush and Bill Clinton and are also commonly used in state and municipal races. Michael Huffington's ascension in business and politics is highlighted in a slick video produced by Californians for Huffington that was used in his 1994 bid for the US Senate. The video, distributed in California and Washington, D.C., served the dual purpose of soliciting funds and maligning his opponent, Dianne Feinstein. Industry spokespeople maintain that direct-mail video campaigns are most effective in local and primary races in which budgets and voter populations are usually smaller and easier to target and track. …