“Dear Friend” will almost certainly appear at the beginning of a direct mail letter you receive today. It’s a lie. The writer of this letter is not your friend. He or she has not met and probably will never meet you. Moreover, the writer is almost certainly not the person whose signature you will see at the bottom. I should know. I have been actually writing such letters for more than 30 years.
I have nothing to do with Ted Cruz’s campaign mail, or with that of any other politician in this election cycle. I haven’t done candidate or campaign mail for some time. But I’ve done enough of it to know that the techniques Cruz’s direct mail consultants are using aren’t even slightly out of the ordinary. Nor are they more or less honest than the mail being done for Jeb, Marco, Hillary, Bernie, etc.
It’s All About Attention
Direct mail is a necessity in modern campaigns. Despite the Internet, direct mail remains one of the most efficient ways to acquire donors and solicit future gifts from the donors. Direct mail is always a contest to be noticed in a crowded mailbox on a busy day. Practitioners know that something like 98 percent of people on average will not respond to an initial appeal for funds. The response they get from often less than 2 people out of a hundred fuels the whole process. So, yes, direct mailers get a little desperate to get their letters opened and read.
“You May Have Already Won.” “Free Gift Enclosed.” “[Insert your town] area campaign.” “Notice of Termination.” “Reserved in Your Name.” “Exclusive Offer.”
None of these often-seen statements are true by any real-world standard. Instead, they are part of a kind of “direct mail truth” that allows strangers to communicate with you as if they have intimate knowledge of your life, as if they were writing to you personally and dropping letters off in the local box just as they do for their favorite aunt.
The Republican National Committee, for example, has for more than a decade been mailing an appeal loudly claiming to be for the benefit of the “Fairfax (or wherever you live) area campaign GOP.” This “localization tactic” is misleading, because the donations go directly to party headquarters in Washington—which, to my knowledge, has no staff dedicated to carefully rerouting money back to towns across America.
It’s not just the language. Every aspect of direct mail—particularly direct mail for fundraising—is aimed at maintaining a carefully constructed charade of being a personal letter from a single individual. Letters inside envelopes are much more expensive to produce than self-mailing brochures. But inside envelopes are how individuals send letters (or at least used to) to other individuals. It’s so much easier and cheaper to meter the postage on the envelope. But you still see real stamps because that’s how real people mail letters. (The stamps are affixed by a machine, by the way.)
Shocker: Ted Cruz Is Trying to Raise Money!
Cruz is taking heat most recently because one of his campaign fundraising mailers says “Check Enclosed.” A few days previously, his campaign was criticized during the Iowa caucuses for a letter headline “Voting Violation.”
Here’s the breathless bulletin from The Huffington Post: “Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is out with a deceptive new mailer that masquerades as official government business and promises people there’s a ‘check enclosed’ when it’s actually asking for money instead.” Asking for money! Say it ain’t so, Ted!
Looks like HuffPo has ripped the lid off another evil right-wing plot—except, of course, this is a complete non-issue. “Check enclosed” is an often-used envelope attention-getter that in no case I’m aware has ever resulting in any kind of unexpected financial windfall for the recipient.
In this case, the check is a “simulated check” made out to the Cruz campaign suggesting that the amount indicated will match a similar amount sent in by the donor, thanks to a matching gift challenge. Big deal. Literally everybody has done this, from candidates to dog and cat charities to organizations raising money to cure diseases.
The whole “masquerading as official government business” claim is risible. This seems to come from nothing more than the return address containing “U.S. Senator Ted Cruz” in that cheesy Old English font direct mailers have used exclusively for members of Congress since direct mail was invented. It actually says, right under Cruz’s name, “Personal Business” and “Not Printed or Mailed at Taxpayer Expense.” So, yeah, crack Huffington Post reporters, I can see where you might be confused this is an official government mailing. Of course, no normal person would.
The Voting Violation Mailer Was Iffy
The “Voting Violation” mailer bears a little more scrutiny. To be honest, I probably would not have done it. I tend to avoid “scary” warnings because I believe when recipients realize the SWAT team is not actually on the way, they tend not to be favorably disposed to your cause. Not all of my colleagues agree with me.
That said, I understand the “Voting Violation” technique is not uncommon in Iowa, and not a trail of iniquity Cruz and his mail consultants have blazed. In fact, the chairman of Cruz’s Iowa campaign, Matt Schultz, who is actually a former Iowa secretary of State, told reporters, “These mailers are common practice to increase voter turnout.” He went on to say the Cruz mailer “was modeled after the very successful 2014 mailers that the Republican Party of Iowa distributed to motivate Republican voters to vote, and which helped elect numerous Republican candidates during that cycle.”
Also, the explanatory language putting this attention-getting headline in context is worth noting. It is prominent in the mailer, not buried in a footnote (or in the Stygian obscurity the newspapers reporting this story would publish a correction): “You are receiving this election notice because of low expected voter turnout in your area. Your individual voting history as well as your neighbors’ are public record. Their scores are published below, and many of them will see your score as well. CAUCUS ON MONDAY TO IMPROVE YOUR SCORE and please encourage your neighbors to caucus as well. A follow-up notice may be issued following Monday’s caucuses.”
Seems pretty straightforward, if a little manipulative. So, bottom line, from a professional standpoint the Cruz direct mail brouhaha is another contrived issue.