When it comes to direct mail, you get approximately five seconds of a voter’s time between the mailbox and the trash can so you need to make those five seconds as eye catching and powerful as possible.
In a misguided attempt to save resources, many campaigns skimp on one of the most crucial aspects of direct mail—photography. It’s akin to building your dream house on a dirt foundation. All of the work you put into your mail program—the research, writing and strategy—won’t be as effective if the piece is dragged down by low resolution, amateurish, overtly political photos taken by a well-meaning volunteer.
A picture is worth a thousand words, especially in political mail. A compelling and unusual photo can leap out of the rest of the clutter in the mailbox and get you those precious seconds of voter attention. A few tips on getting the right image to make your point:
1. Hire a professional photographer, not your neighbor who has a new digital camera (unless he or she is a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer in which case I hope they have better equipment). Spend the money on a real shoot with a real photographer. Your mail will cost thousands of dollars, and its success depends on the art so just do it.
2. Remember that campaigns are not about candidates, they’re about voters. So don’t put the candidate on the front of a mail piece unless it’s a unique or unusual photo (see point 4). The front of a mail piece needs to be something the voter can relate to and a political candidate isn’t relatable for them. But photos of regular folks doing regular things, such as playing in the yard or at a park with parents looking on, make sense to voters.
3. Candid photos are always better than posed photos. Posed photos look posed—i.e. stiff, unnatural and, most importantly, not relatable. Some posed shots are fine but the majority of shots should look as if they are capturing a moment in the candidate’s life or the voter’s life. Please, do not allow the candidate’s family to wear matching outfits for the family shot. How in the world is that normal?
4. Get out the old photo albums and find fun childhood photos. I’m a fan of old photos such as a candidate as a kid dressed in a cowboy outfit, riding a stick horse. What better way to convey a message of “fighting crime” or “from an early age (candidate) was committed to protecting our community.” It’s funny, interesting, unique and, again, relatable. It makes the candidate seem more human. Humanizing the candidate is key.
Unfortunately, most voters don’t think candidates are normal people. The images a candidate uses in their communication need to make a candidate look as “normal” as possible.
A good case study is Joel Burns who ran for the city council in Fort Worth, Texas. Joel is openly gay in a city that had never elected an openly gay candidate. His campaign communication needed an even greater emphasis on showing him as relatable with the same values, concerns and needs as his neighbors and community.
Our first piece had a photo of Joel at the age of 12 with his mother and father and younger sister. Not only is it a typical 1970’s family photo, the same kind we all endured, but Joel’s Dad, Butch, is wearing a cowboy hat. As a native Texan, I can tell you nothing says “normal” in Texas like a man named Butch in a cowboy hat. And by using that photo, we portrayed Joel as someone “just like the rest of us” instead of a typical politician or the “gay” candidate who is not to be trusted.
A good example of a photo doing “your dirty work” for you is the piece “black eye” produced for the Re-elect Delegate Chuck Caputo (Va.) campaign. This piece focused on domestic violence. It needed an image that was powerful and relatable without being too extreme.
It would have been easy to pick a harsher photo to really drive the point home, but then you run the risk of turning voters off, especially women. We needed a photo that was genuine. We are proud to have won the 2009 Reed Award for Toughest Direct Mail Piece with the image we chose.
The lesson here is don’t skimp on the art. Often times, a piece of direct mail may be the only time a candidate “enters” someone’s home. So it needs to show a candidate as someone they may want to invite in. This begins and ends with well-planned, creative photography.
Liz Chadderdon is the president of The Chadderdon Group, a Democratic direct mail firm based in Virginia.