Don’t Waste the Power of Print on Boring Campaign Ads

Never underestimate the ability of print to win voters over with moving, inspiring design. Campaign ad veteran Marcus Roscoe weighs in on online campaigning, issues management, and using print campaigning to do anything but play it safe.

Last week, one of my fellow bloggers here at Hotcards was talking about the wave of online political campaigning we’re seeing grow in a full-fledged tsunami this campaign season. She rightly pointed out that campaign managers would do well to continue to dedicate time and energy to improving their print advertising. However, she was way off base in her reasoning for doing so.

She claimed that because print campaigning was safe (i.e. – a candidate’s goofy haircut or lack of felicity with language need not be displayed on a yard sign) that it couldn’t be replaced or even compared to the online or broadcast sides of the campaign trail.

To that I say ‘bah’ and ‘humbug,’ however seasonally out of place these epithets may be. A) There’s nothing ‘safe’ about print campaigning, and B) if there is, then we’re not doing our job! In the past, political print has put across some of the most moving, inspiring statements in the history of politics. Think of the print campaign that was launched around the Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima image, or the famous Uncle Sam slogans and imagery that has come to personify patriotism. If this kind of campaigning can be done for war efforts, then surely modern campaign managers and electoral candidates can do the same in the struggle for major political change.

Uncle Sam says Print with Hotcards!

Before I get into what it takes to actually bring political printing to that next level, I’ll take a moment to contextualize the topic around the online campaigning issue. It’s certainly interesting to watch the campaigns of the democratic frontrunners evolving online. The key to successful online campaigning is to embrace the new medium and let it help the electoral process, and politics as a whole, evolve into what should prove to be the ultimate forum for truly democratic thought.

In some ways, they’re doing everything right. You look at Obama’s site, and he’s got custom technology solutions up there that must have been in the works for the better part of a year. This site went up overnight, practically bug-free, with crazy community-building features like My.BarackObama.com. No intention of running, my old aunt Fanny!

So great, perfect, all your supporters have somewhere to hang out. Unfortunately, campaigners seem to be at something of a loss when it comes to running damage control in our little global virtual community. Living on the internet is kind of like living in a small town. You can’t keep a secret or even make a move without it being torn apart by gossipmongers, and a good scandal spreads faster than the most powerful virus.

Online, you can’t avoid the issues, so what campaign managers must learn to do is embrace them, and admit that politics, if it wants to be present online, has to change, become more mouthy, less embarrassed, and quicker to defend itself as opposed to running damage control. Politicking online isn’t about presenting a perfect, glossy image. It’s about being real, maybe realer than you’ve ever been on a commercial or a campaign poster. Scary? Yes. But altogether better and more transparent than the slick, pseudo-impenetrable-but-ultimately-expository systems of the past.

And what does this have to do with the import and impact of a print campaign? Everything, friends, because the show-and-tell, no-holds-barred nature of online campaigning depends on print campaigning to do all the really hard work, i.e. actually making people like you.

Online, you find three types of voters: your rabid supporters, the politically minded minority, and of course, pundits, journalists, and bloggers who are monitoring your every move.

Offline, you find: the average voter, a.k.a., the chokehold majority, a.k.a. everyone who barely has time to vote, let alone take part in some light grassroots campaigning on your behalf.

The average voter cares about the issues, they’re interested in the election, but they’re not necessarily looking for the skinny on your policies, they’re not going to watch your internet videos, and during commercials, they probably flip stations.

All that the average voter wants and needs is some little sign (note the pun) that a candidate is like them, cares about the things that they care about, and worries about the same things that keep them too worried about their own lives to worry about the electoral process.

Which means that on the one hand we have the internet, where nothing flies under the radar, where everyone who’s interested is going to find out about everything. And then we have the “outside world,” where people are worried about their families and their jobs and the rest of life in general, and politics that doesn’t hit that stuff on the head, and that doesn’t connect organically on the street, in the mail, and in public places, doesn’t count.

Success will come from campaigning to these different worlds on different fronts. The internet wants issues? Drown it in your issues. People want to discuss, assess, contemplate? Bring it on. Make your politics so fierce online that there’s no room left for gossip. And in your print campaign, give them the opposite: give them a friendly face, an inspiring statement, an image that sticks in the imagination and won’t let go. Focus on their need to be reassured, encouraged, and even entertained.

To wit, online: feed the head, in print: feed the heart.

In a world where homepage-building philosophy is go-busy-or-go-home, it can be easy to forget how a simple image or statement can convey an incredible wealth of meaning and emotion. But print advertising has been doing just this for its entire lifespan. Even things like colors, patterns, and textures can hit home emotionally in major ways, and its imperative to the success of a print campaign that this power be fully taken advantage of.

So rather than playing it safe in print this campaign season, I say go for the gut. Use print campaigning to show off the side of your candidate that will make those too-busy-for-politics voters feel the love: the family man, the farmer, the little league coach, the union laborer, whatever. Properly designed printed imagery can convey all of this and more. Anyone who can harness the true power of print will be an unstoppable force on the campaign trail.

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