When Ugly Works
Sometimes, good direct mail is just downright ugly. On purpose. Maybe the goal is for the piece to look inexpensive and put together on the fly with whatever office supplies are at hand — or not done by a professional graphic designer. It implies frugality and no dime wasted on fancy, artistic, matchy-matchy stationery.
Maybe the ugly package isn't intentional. It doesn't turn out like expected, or compromises were made between concept and execution — or maybe it's created by fans of the naked mole rat (Google the poor creature … ack!).
However it happens, mail that violates a snappy dresser's sense of style can cause some cringing.
I say get over it. Because if it works, who cares?
Some might be horrified by what the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee mailed recently, for example.
It arrived in a white, No. 10 closed-face envelope. "DEMOCRATIC HEADQUARTERS," "JAMES CARVILLE" and "DO NOT TAMPER WITH OR DESTROY" are printed in various point sizes of Courier type in the corner card. Above a faux label design around the addressing, "— AMERICA RESPONDS —" and "Deadline: August 15" are printed in red in a serif font that looks like Palatino. At the bottom right corner of the envelope, in small Courier type, the package is personalized with "DEMOCRATIC SUPPORTER NO.: 000903088" (my actual member ID). A lot is going on for a No. 10, but as a whole I think it all works together.
Inside, a two-sheet, four-page letter continues the fun with fonts. It's nothing more than black ink on white stock, as unfancy as you can get, which is appropriate for a signer like James Carville. The letterhead has "DEMOCRATIC HEADQUARTERS" and "James Carville" in 18-point Courier.
The letter copy is in what looks like 14-point Arial. That's something you don't see every day, but with the larger-than-usual point size, it's quite readable. The letter is dated "Monday, June 20, 2011, 9:15 a.m." and opens with, "Finally, the political outhouse has been knocked over and the Republican Party's lies are hanging in the wind for everyone to see."
After a scathing rant on the GOP's agenda, the letter gets to the heart of the offer in the center of page one in boldface type: "And there's just one thin firewall standing between you and the Radical Right: A Democratic Senate."
The letter makes a compelling case for support with the argument that the Republican Party only needs four seats to "give the politicians of your worst nightmares enough votes" to undo Democratic progress; block President Obama; and "strip away control of your health care decisions, our retirement funds, even your civil rights — and put you at the mercy of corporate America and special-interest groups."
After that scare and more copy about what Democrats have to lose, reassurance comes on page three. In reviewing what happened in the 2010 election, the letter explains: "It was the first time in eight decades that the House switched party control without the Senate following suit — and that's directly attributable to the DSCC and the early support it got from individuals like you. The DSCC backed an effort that knocked on more than 2 million doors, called over 5.5 million swing voters, aired hard-hitting TV ads in nearly a dozen states — and won!
"Grassroots support, baby! That's what the Democrats have.
"That's why I'm asking you to join me today to build the Democratic firewall for 2012 by sending a gift to the DSCC right now.
"And if you respond by midnight on August 15, your support will be matched dollar for dollar — doubling your impact."
After more copy about the importance of early money, how 90 percent of the DSCC's budget is funded by individuals giving less than $200 and the fierce nature of the right-wing campaign machine, the letter ends with, "It's your turn to be the firewall."
Hitting the firewall theme hard, an insert offers an "Official DSCC 2012 Firewall" tote bag for a gift of $35 or more. It's printed on plain, white stock and is very unslick compared to most back-end premium offers. On the back, a picture of former senior advisor to President George W. Bush Karl Rove with his hand raised appears to be grabbing out at you. And we're back to Courier again with a headline screaming about outside groups spending $130 million in the last election and urging the recipient to "BE THE FIREWALL IN 2012."
The reply form is a study in ugliness. It's busy, has a mix of fonts, a seemingly random yellow highlighter effect (although one swipe is over copy about various ways to give, including calling a toll-free number, which is good), a graphic of one dollar bill equaling $2 thanks to the match, a gray box with a personalized message using my first name and telling me the DSCC needs 19 donors from my city by Aug. 15, and no fewer than a dozen check boxes, six of which are the ask array.
The 11th check box invites my feedback with the kind of sell copy you usually see above the dollar string. The copy above a series of ruled lines reads, "I want to stop the GOP from jeopardizing Social Security, repealing health care reform and providing tax breaks to companies that outsource American jobs. Here's why I'm standing with the DSCC today:"
A shopping-list style notepad with the headline "Stand with President Obama for Lasting Change/Silence GOP Lies" and a DSCC logo and website footer also are included, though mentioned nowhere. It is the only component with the DSCC's logo, interestingly. Perhaps the DSCC was using up old notepad inventory, but the premium would have added to the package's gestalt if it had repeated the "I am the Firewall/Stop the Radical Right in 2012" refrain like the tote bag offer.
Last but not least, the BRE stands out, too. In addition to all standard mail requirements, the return envelope is printed with gray vertical stripes, both front and back.
All in all, with the combination of déclassé Courier used in unfamiliar ways, the plain, mostly black ink on white stock, and a reply with a whole lot going on in as many fonts, this DSCC effort is unlikely to win any direct-mail beauty pageants.
But again, who cares? If it works, get your ugly on. FS
Kimberly Seville is a creative strategist and freelance copywriter. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.