Mailed Ads Have Become Mostly Negative, Experts Say

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2008

They raise money through text messages and release videos directly to the Internet, but Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are relying on the old-fashioned U.S. Postal Service to deliver that staple of a presidential campaign's final weeks: the attack ad.

During the past month, the two presidential campaigns and their allies have bombarded voters in swing states with one contemptuous brochure after the next. A review of two-dozen direct-mail advertisements sent on behalf of Obama or McCain documents a below-the-radar battle in which the public message of the candidates becomes something more spiteful, more exaggerated and often more ominous.

Registered voters in Virginia received a flier from the state's Democratic Party warning that McCain "is hiding something he doesn't want us to know." Similarly, the Republican National Committee sent half a dozen swing states mail adorned with the slogan "Barack Obama: Not who you think he is."

McCain and Obama disparage the opposing side's attacks as unfair even as they approve more mailings of their own because direct mail has a 30-year history of swaying voters late in elections. By targeting brochures to specific kinds of voters in specific neighborhoods, politicians free themselves from the burdens of advertising to a mass audience on television, marketing and campaign experts said. Such ads can be more negative. They can be more alarmist.

"It's really a matter of 'the more emotional you are, the more rabid you are; the more extreme you are, the better it will work,' " said Richard Armstrong, a political-advertising expert who wrote a book about direct mail. "It's really just a matter of getting people's attention in their homes, where they live, and making sure it's something they'll remember. You want to get them angry."

Direct mail has influenced political campaigns ever since Richard Viguerie started compiling mailing lists by hand for conservative groups in the late 1960s, and its influence has grown steadily. In the last 20 years, experts said, direct-mail campaigning has become predominantly negative because candidates find it less damaging to their image to make attacks through the mail than on TV. Mail has become, Viguerie said, "kind of the country cousin of television or radio, your typically more glamorous forms of advertising."

So, in a campaign where few advertisements have qualified as glamorous -- a study by the Wisconsin Advertising Project showed McCain's ads are 74 percent negative, compared with 60 percent of Obama's -- direct mail has turned particularly ugly.

"The one advantage is you can get a really nasty piece of mail into the household, and it may well be passed around," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Letters are rare enough now that people actually look at them and pay more attention. A good message in the mail is going to stand out."

The Republican National Committee designed a series of mailers that essentially ignore McCain and his policies. Instead, each flier takes a standard attack against Obama -- that he's a vapid celebrity; that he's weak on terrorism -- and escalates it.

In New Mexico, voters opened their mailboxes to find a picture of Obama under the Sunset Boulevard sign in Hollywood with the message, "Obama put Hollywood above America." In Ohio, the RNC included an explicit-content-style warning in a bold, red font -- the story you are about to read is graphic and shocking, but true. . . -- before exaggerating Obama's stance on a type of late-term abortion its opponents call "partial-birth abortion."

The North Carolina Republican State Executive Committee sent a picture of Obama next to this quote: "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough." Those words were not spoken by Obama but by Bill Ayers, the former 1960s radical whom Obama met years later in Chicago. The brochure left the quote unattributed.

In perhaps most controversial mailing, the RNC sent a flier to voters in Virginia and Missouri that depicts the nose of an airplane inched next to the glass exterior of a building. The brochure warns: "Terrorists don't care who they hurt," but "Barack Obama think terrorists just need a good talking to." When a reporter asked McCain about the ad last week, he said he "absolutely" supports it and thinks it revealed one of his opponent's shortcomings.

It probably surprised McCain when Obama decided to send the terrorist ad to his network of supporters Thursday morning. In a mass e-mail, Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, included a picture of the ad and requested that Democrats donate $25 to Obama's campaign to "push back." He included a link to a page on the Obama Web site that read:

"John McCain is trying to win this election by scaring voters with truly vile attacks . . . We cannot let McCain take the low road all the way to the White House."

But Democrats have traveled a similar path. According to Democratic mailings, McCain is a "disaster for healthcare" and an opponent of equal working rights for women. The Virginia State Democratic Party sent out one flier asserting that McCain's campaign is run by "seven Washington lobbyists."

The AFL-CIO, which supports Obama, has sent more than 57 million pieces of political mail during this campaign in an effort it refers to as the "largest and most targeted" in its history. The organization stuffs mailboxes in 21 battleground states -- it added West Virginia to the list last week -- after concentrating on 13 states for the 2004 election.

The ads are the result of a sophisticated program the AFL-CIO launched in 2003. Each ad is first sent to test group of 20,000 union members, and the AFL-CIO chooses the most effective ads and sends them to the union audience most likely to be influenced by them. Most of the ads have been negative. One refers to the "Bush/McCain financial crisis." Another outlines a three-point McCain economic plan that the candidate himself would probably take issue with: "Send jobs overseas. Put Wall Street first. Ignore Main Street."

"We can now be sure that what we're sending out is what will be most effective," said Mike Podhorzer, the deputy political director for AFL-CIO who oversees the mailing program. "If you use direct mail the right way, it can be four or fives times more influential than ever."

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