It is extremely important that your campaign advertising be designed to be effective and to give the maximum benefit for every contributor’s funds you spend. Many campaigns waste their advertising funds. You want your campaign advertising to win votes.
Campaign Advertising: What wins votes?
Almost every campaign-watcher you come in contact with will have some strong ideas about how you should spend your campaign advertising money. Some folks will want you to plaster every stray telephone pole and walls with campaign signs. Others will have wild ideas like having planes tow banners or even doing skywriting. They believe that anything that gets your name out before the public will get you votes.
However, the kind of advertising that is most effective is that which persuades people to vote for you. While name identification is helpful, advertising that gives people a reason to vote for you is much more effective.
Many campaigns start out with what we call a “Wanted Poster” flyer. There is a big photo of the candidate’s (usually) smiling face centered near the top with a biography below. Now, there may be people who will vote for a candidate because he is in Rotary or because he belongs to the popular club in the area. However, most people need stronger reasons to vote for you. While it is fine to get your biography out there, it won’t sell very many voters on your candidacy.
One basic problem that many candidates have in putting together persuasive material is that they realize that taking positions on issues will convince some people to vote for them, but they fear losing votes from people who are on the other side of the issue. You need to get over the concept that you can somehow get one hundred percent of the votes. If you avoid taking positions that offend anyone, you will also find that you aren’t giving anyone a reason to vote for you.
Whether you use direct mail, television, radio or other forms of advertising, you need a focused message. Most voters aren’t paying a lot of attention to the election campaign. So, you need to concentrate on your strongest issues.
You don’t want to spend time promoting your position on every possible issue. Concentrate on motivational issues. Those are defined as issues that will cause people to make a decision to vote for you solely because that one issue is so important to them and you are on their side.
Taxes paid on commodities are a perennial motivational issue. In an area that is growing rapidly, slowing the speed or improving the quality of development can be motivational issues. Policies that improve quality of life in immediately recognizable ways can also be motivational issues. “I’m a nice guy, vote for me” is not going to motivate people to vote for you.
In order to defeat an incumbent you should have at least one specific issue where you think the incumbent is just plain wrong. If the incumbent has a record of mismanagement or dishonesty, those are motivational issues as well. Incumbents can also be vulnerable if they have gotten out of touch with their constituents. The guy who gets the streets fixed and the water fountains in the park working is going to be difficult to beat, but the incumbent who doesn’t return phone calls is a much easier target.
If you are the incumbent, you may have a record you are proud to run on. If so, definitely use your record. However, don’t spend all your time talking about the past. You need to let the voters know what you will do if they give you another term. Many of the incumbents I have seen defeated spent all their time talking about the past when their challenger was talking about the future. Voters are most concerned about their own future and the future of their community.
I will get into more detail on the various types of advertising and how to identify the specific motivational issues in your constituency in later chapters, but while you are planning your campaign, keep in mind that you need to develop a focused message that will motivate people to vote for you. Don’t expect them to mark their ballots for you just because you’re a good guy and they’ve seen your name on a few posters.
Years ago, I attended a seminar where a top campaign professional was asked about the best place to put up campaign signs. He said to put them on the candidate’s route from his home to his office since the candidate is the one who most enjoys looking at his name on the roadside. Actually, your campaign volunteers also enjoy seeing the signs. Even though campaign signs aren’t the most effective type of campaign advertising, they do give people a feeling that they are involved in an active campaign that has a chance of winning.
If your supporters want to see lots of campaign signs, encourage them to get permission from property owners for good yard sign locations rather than making midnight runs to put up signs wherever they can find a spot. Keep in mind that it is even easier for your opponents to take down your signs than it is for you to put them up. Yard signs are more likely to be left alone because the risk of getting caught is much higher and most people are hesitant to trespass on private property.
A campaign sign in someone’s yard may be very effective advertising since it represents an endorsement from someone that people know, but signs slapped up on the public places don’t have as much impact. In fact, in these environmentally sensitive days, many people look at massive displays of campaign signs in public places as blight.
If you should decide that you want to display signs in the public places, be sure to find out the rules before you even order the signs. In some places, local jurisdictions have ordinances to regulate signs. There can be limits on where signs are posted, deadlines for removing them after the election, and, in some cases you may have to spend money on a permit or deposit before you post signs.
It’s a good idea to check with communities through their associations before you start putting up signs. Your local planning department or someone who has run campaigns in that area in the past may be able to help you find the information you need to avoid violations. There may even be restrictions on yard signs in some areas.
You need to be certain that whoever is posting your signs is careful to note the rules in each jurisdiction. They also need to take care not to post signs on private property without permission. Nothing will lose a family’s votes faster than for them to see your sign on their fence if you didn’t have permission to put it there. They will also let their friends know what a jerk they think you are. So, if you have a contractor putting up the signs, make sure that your contract with them requires them to post the signs legally and appropriately. And, if it’s a volunteer effort, make sure that everyone involved has careful instructions and accurate information so they will do it right.
You should also tell all of your volunteers in advance that you don’t want them taking down the opposition’s signs. Sign wars take off in a lot of campaigns because some volunteers think it’s part of the political game. In fact, it is taking and destroying someone’s property and they could be prosecuted for theft. Folks taking down signs also start a cycle that brings revenge from the other side. The other side starts stealing your signs which makes the “game” pretty expensive.
If the opposition starts stealing your signs, focus your volunteers on surveillance, not on revenge. I know of a number of campaigns that were embarrassed when their key people (in some cases even the candidate or his family members) were caught stealing signs. The public doesn’t think people who do this sort of stuff should be trusted with public office. So, use your opponent’s bad habits against him, but don’t escalate the sign war. Just like on the playground, the kid who starts the fight isn’t necessarily the one who gets caught in the act. If your campaigner gets caught, “He started it!” won’t be a very good defense.
And, please be sure to make arrangements to take the signs down after the election. Nobody likes to see fading signs several months after the election.