The emails and campaign ads of this year's election have exposed a "creative crisis in the Democratic Party"
“With a frequency and desperation matched only by a Nigerian prince selling a Groupon deal for boner pills, the Democrats and the emails will not stop trying to make you give them money.” That’s how Jon Stewart described Democratic efforts to raise small-dollar contributions ahead of next week’s midterm elections. And he wasn’t far off.
The emails are the new punching bag for critics, but their critique is fundamentally the same one that many have about the avalanche of thirty-second television commercials: a lack of creative integrity and a palpable disrespect for the audience. Taken together, the complainers about both kinds of content identify what amounts to a creative crisis in the Democratic Party. And no matter what happens on Tuesday night, we will wake up Wednesday morning needing to confront it.
As an emeritus practitioner of Democratic campaign emailing, having overseen the online fundraising first for Howard Dean and then both of Barack Obama’s campaigns, I find myself conflicted about the deluge in my inbox. My first instinct is to defend the barrage, because I vastly prefer a political party and candidates funded by a no-stone-unturned approach to generating small donations from ordinary people to the alternative. You don’t hear the same kind of frustration at Republican fundraising emails for a simple reason: they don’t send as many, because the Republican Party relies far less on ordinary people contributing to their campaigns.
But no one wants to be treated like they’re stupid. That means people producing both types of content are missing opportunities for potential persuasion and engagement—and creating more cynicism in politics along the way. Many in both the TV and mass email industries will tell you that they’re getting important communication done with their TV ads and emails, and that the complaints are just a cost of doing business.
And part of the increased complaints surely do result from the sheer volume of both types of content. More big money in politics means more TV ads on more channels than ever. And with better data analytics driving ever more precise airtime-buying strategies, you won’t just see ads on the local news. If you’re a targeted voter, the ads will find you watching “Top Chef” reruns or the History Channel. But they are still likely to be the nearly-campy, scary, negative ads with fake-torn newspaper headlines and grave voiceover. Or the old standby of a candidate in a business suit speaking meaningless words earnestly into the camera.
Similarly, the ability to deliver email to supporters has become more mechanized. In 2004, for the Dean campaign to send email to all of its 500,000 supporters, it required technical staff to create the recipient list and build the message in HTML, and then it took 12 hours for all the emails to be delivered after hitting the “send” button. Today, my own company and others provide the ability for campaigns and organizations to have non-technical staff build endless, personalized variations of email to multiple segments of their supporter list, which after hitting “send” get delivered at the rate of more than 20 million an hour.
But while you may be able to get something accomplished through sheer volume of terrible content, people are tuning out and getting angry at the content based on something more than volume.
The truth is that the increase in volume—in particular the ability to segment and deliver more personalized communications—has in many cases eclipsed the creative capacity of the usual players and their organizations. More and better resources need to be devoted to not just shoveling ever more content out the door and hoping for the best, but accounting for the quality, veracity, and cohesiveness of the content. The Democrats should be a party that not only takes pride in winning, which of course comes first, but also seeks to win with a lasting ability to take pride in the work.
The Obama campaigns built the biggest grassroots fundraising base in political history, in part through relentless testing and optimization. Our staff would dream up endless variations and approaches to inspiring someone to click and donate. But we didn’t just throw anything at the wall to see what stuck; there was a creative filter applied to all that experimentation. That is, our success was driven by tactical innovation that happened within the confines of the kind of organization we wanted to be and the kind of relationship we sought to build with our supporters.
From what we see in this midterm cycle, that model is by no means a given for the candidates and campaigns that come after. The 2016 campaigns will be the front line of determining what kind of party and movement we’re going to be. And those 2016 candidates will face decisions about what kind of campaign they want to have—whether they’ll embrace the cheap, the misleading, the disingenuous, or whether they’ll aspire to do something better.
I feel obliged to note that, for my part, as someone who came up doing the digital work, I see the emails as the lesser evil. The carpet-bombing of terrible TV ads is the single biggest driver of the endless money-for-influence machine in politics. At least the email scoundrels are raising money, and doing it the right way, rather than spending it.
And I want to be clear not to let the Republicans off the hook here. The GOP’s content isn’t any less annoying, disingenuous or over the top—it is often far worse, and has even more serious consequences. The race-baiting TV ads are in full force, and some of the most reprehensible language you’ll see used in public by the right surfaces in their campaign emails. They get away with it because there just aren’t very many people on those lists.
It’s also important to note that despite all the noise on both sides, you can see glimmers of great content out there. Take Senator Al Franken’s emails—a delightful mix of holiday recipes from the Franken household and a human, thoughtful approach to engaging his supporters on the nuts and bolts of campaigns (a recent appeal promised frugality: “Pizza for our volunteers? Sure. But minimal toppings.”). Over time, I suspect that the churn-and-burn approach to online fundraising will be bested by the respectful, playful, urgent approach of organizations like Franken’s. Short of Franken moonlighting as Creative Director for his fellow Democratic Senators, though, the path ahead for the Democrats will be difficult. The overdrive of the social-media news cycle will pull campaigns and organizations toward more content, rather than better content.
Meanwhile, the relentless arms race of TV ads and the ratcheting up of fundraising targets to fund them puts the front-line producers of content in a terrible position. Almost anyone you speak to who makes their living cutting an ad or producing an email would prefer that things were different, but they’re working around the clock and barely keeping up. They just want to get through the cycle and help the good guys win.
So in 2016 it will be up to candidates and campaign managers to fight the madness and put the resources in place to create more compelling messages on TV and the web than ever before. Resources alone won’t be enough, though. The campaigns will need the right leadership and structure in place with the creative chops, political judgment and frankness to enforce a commitment to a single, overriding content priority: Don’t Be Lame.
Joe Rospars is Founder & CEO of Blue State Digital and was the principal digital strategist for Obama for America in 2008 and 2012.
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