The Obama Direct Mailer Debate

When full color printing goes up against spam…

The Democratic Primary in South Carolina is coming up fast, and candidates are racing to cover as much ground as possible this week in an effort to disprove the old adage that “You can’t please all the people, all the time.”

Obama, who’s picked as an SC favorite, still appears to be struggling a bit in the polls amongst white voters. Supporters are placing the blame on a piece of spam circulating throughout South Carolina, in which Obama is accused of being secretly Muslim, and secretly anti-American. Unfortunately, certain venomous minds in our country tend to see those two things as synonymous.

Fighting back against these spam emails, the SC Obama camp has begun to send out direct mailers declaring Obama as a “Committed Christian.” The mailer – another nice example of full color printing from Obama – tells readers about the day he was, “Called to Christ, Called to Bring Change, Called to Serve.”

No one is arguing whether or not the mailer is well designed, because it is (besides being a bit copy-heavy), but was it a sharp move, strategy-wise?


  • Obama responds to a piece of low-quality spam with a beautiful, glossy mailer. Email might be cheap, but direct mail trumps it for impact any day of the week.
  • Obama connects with South Carolina Christian voters, reassuring them that he shares their values.


  • The mailer runs the risk of alienating SC Democrats who like to keep their politics secular.
  • With the direct mail campaign receiving national attention, gains made amongst voters in SC could translate into losses in other states.
Obama SC Direct Mailer

If the buzz online is any indication, it seems like Dems are split on how to feel about the mailer, particularly in terms of what appears to be the Obama camp’s effort to respond to the spam attack. On the one hand, the spam sucks, and it should be put in its place. On the other hand, should anyone in this country have to defend their right to religious freedom?

The issue is much larger than full color print design vs. spam, but it’s also related in a really important way. With spam, it’s effortless to pen some random, malicious message, and send it to thousands of people. With print design, however, you have to think, HARD, about what you’re saying, and how you’re saying it.

Because of the extra effort it takes, direct mail will always be a more powerful tool than spam. Personally, I hope that it’s always available to the people who really need it to make their voices heard.

7 Comments Posted So Far:
Posted By: josh On 2008-01-25 10:13:49

"No one is arguing whether or not the mailer is well designed, because it is..."

What? That thing is horrendous. I expected better from Obama's campaign, which has a savvy web presence.

Poor color choices, inconsistent typography, cliches up the wazoo... Frankly, there's nothing visually pleasing about it.

Posted By: Anne On 2008-01-25 13:12:22

Josh - When I think of something as being 'well designed' I think of it appealing to its target demographic, and in this case, I don't know if the smooth, modern design we've seen in Obama's online presence, and in many of the campaign's signs, would have done the trick.

The busy, cliched, and almost folksy nature of the mailer design, might be hitting the mark exactly, appealing to voters who weren't sure if Obama shared their down-home values (i.e. elderly voters, voters used to getting similar literature from their church, etc.).

Sometimes, a designer's idea of 'good design' isn't right for the project, but it is right for the target. I think.

Posted By: josh On 2008-01-27 05:00:03

Ah yes, the target demographic turns up again, just like a bad penny.

There's a legitimate argument to be made for this kind of targeting (which I would argue against). I can understand the appeal of using the church bulletin format as a vehicle for their message, unfortunately at the expense of the Obama brand and, in my estimation, directly contrary to his campaign as I see it. But I also don't think that goes deep enough.

Targeted or not, the visual language is clumsy and without focus. Speaking in church language or to elderly people does not mean you can be inconsistent and lazy with design. Let me be specific for a moment:

There's little to nothing wrong with the cover side. It would live well with his other material and still says 'look at me, I'm conventionally spiritual' with the B/W photo and Trajan type. Boring boring boring, but not outright ugly.

The inside is a mess. We go from a more or less full bleed on the front to a 'I'm not quite big enough' framed church backdrop for an Obama speech. Making matters worse, the text goes from left aligned with the rag on the right (front of the brochure) to justified. This wouldn't be so bad if all the line lengths were long, but it seems like the columns were determined by the size of the accompanying photo rather than any sort of grid.

And what of these serif headers? Some are all one size, some are nudged a bit larger ("Change," "Serve") almost emphasizing them, but ineffectively. I'm really crazy about that glow around the text too. Let's not just be cheesy, let's execute it randomly!

More strange happenings:

The body text is different sizes in different columns. Why?

They jump back to the Gothic sans serif for "Barack on the power of prayer." Another random act of design mess.

And all that is without touching upon the third piece, which has the same pitfalls as the brochure plus some infractions all its own which I won't get into.

So, as I stated previously, I think it's a perfectly defensible idea– church style mailer to connect with particular voters. My real issue is with the sloppy execution. Lots of church mailers, bulletins, etc. are better than this, and it's not even close. It needs a complete redesign.

Full disclosure: I'm an Obama supporter, and that may be part of why this is so disappointing. I was especially glad as a designer to see a strong visual brand from a Democrat after the absolute trouncing the Bush/Cheney identity put on the Kerry/Edwards campaign from a design angle.

Thanks for addressing my thoughts though, you've got a good blog.

Posted By: Anne On 2008-01-31 20:22:53

Very well put together point, Josh. And looking at it from that perspective, it certainly makes me think that the brochure was thrown together in a great deal of haste, perhaps even in a panic?

However, now that we look back at Obama's landslide victory in SC, it's hard to argue that the rushed madness of the design hurt his brand.

It makes me wonder: how important are the tiny details that we agonize over to the ultimate success of a piece of advertising?

Posted By: Joshua Spohrer On 2008-02-01 08:54:21

Yes, I'd wager the brochure, as most things on the campaign trail, was rushed against a tight deadline. Just the nature of the beast I suppose.

I doubt this brochure impacted his overall brand much at all. I don't think any direct mailer could (short of vintage Ozzy Osbourne stuff). They'll be fine unless this type of visual language makes its way to mass publication.

That said, I do think the smallest of details are important. I don't think audiences complain when they're not there or at their best, but I believe they can sense more than they're acutely aware of. Details are the differences between good and great.

“The details are not the details. They make the design.”
-Charles Eames

It's an oft used quote, but I think it carries some weight. Small ingredients can fundamentally change the focus and message of a final piece.

More to the point, I don't believe votes from the target audience (or whatever bar for success there might be in an ad campaign) should validate the brochure. That's far too simple an analysis for those responses, which can be based on many factors outside direct control. As a designer, I work from the principles of visual communication driven by purpose, not the response from the audience.

I think this jibes well with most professions that interact with an audience. Even for the best speakers like Obama, there will be nights that the audience won't be buying what he's selling. Not for any fault of his own, but because no one bats a thousand. I think performers like stand up comedians have a good feel for this phenomenon, and it's something I wish more clients would acknowledge.

Posted By: Joshua Spohrer On 2008-02-02 16:34:29

Small postscript: Here's a great video from A Daily Show that takes a look at the folks who design direct mail pieces.

Posted By: Dave Seehra On 2008-06-06 16:16:07

Mr. Obama my hearty Congrats! I am very excited for the day when new era beings in America. I am hoping for a great change in America. I hope you will restore our prestige around the world and win over the enemies and change their heart and minds toward peace and love. I am really seriously hoping that you will capitalize on Mrs. and Mr. Clintons strengths and bring back our prosperity and hope. Last 8 years, I have felt a great sense of hoplessness in America and wondered if we can ever do any thing right. I hope you can rejuvenate the country to be #1 again.

May god be with you in every step and every breath.

Dave Seehra

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