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Beyond Junk-Mail Burnout : THE NEXT HURRAH : The Changing Face of the American Political Process by Richard Armstrong (Beech Tree Books: $18.95; 320 pp.)

May 15, 1988|Joseph R. Cerrell | Cerrell chairs the board of the American Assn. of Political Consultants and is a board member of the Public Affairs Section of the Public Relations Society of America. He is chairman of Cerrell Associates Inc., a corporate and political communications firm in Los Angeles

Applying the latest technologies in communications to the way in which political candidates and campaigns reach today's voters may bring renewed interest and excitement to America's political process. But it may also identify potential liabilities that cannot be ignored. That is the essence of one of the most captivating and complete books to be written on the application of technology to politics.

"The Next Hurrah: The Changing Face of the American Political Process," by author Richard Armstrong, exposes the reader to every conceivable gadget and gimmick that "junk-mail junkies" use to reach the consumer and then describes how they can be applied to political campaigns. Thus, the way in which campaigns are managed today has dramatically changed because they are operating with an entirely different set of tools.

The "stump speeches" that were delivered on top of flatbed trucks, at train stations, neighborhood pubs, whistle-stop tours, rallies, and kaffeeklatsches, have been replaced by carefully crafted speeches written by professional speech writers who have access to every issue and political poll through a modem that is tied to a computer. Those speeches are then delivered with the assistance of TelePrompTers at carefully selected locations.

Volunteers are playing a different role in political campaigns today. In previous years, they were recruited for nearly every job--from walking precincts to folding, stuffing, stamping, and sorting contribution letters. The automation of the campaign has greatly diminished the role of volunteers. As Tim Roper points out, "Nowadays, you have a lot of volunteers sitting around with nothing to do. I can't tell you how many of our mailings have gotten screwed up because we had to send it to be assembled at the (campaign) headquarters just to give their volunteers something to do."

Many of the technologies that Armstrong identifies in his book have actually had their beginnings in the political arena. Ever since the Kennedy-Nixon debates, campaigns have used television and radio. Candidates have traditionally reached voters by walking door-to-door, through the mail, and with political ads purchased in local newspapers. Those approaches continue to be used, especially by candidates seeking local office. What seems to be different is that the technology used by candidates today is more advanced and more refined, as if Ma Bell took a look at the way politicians were reaching voters and decided that there could be new and improved ways for getting to them.

As quickly as the new technologies became available to businesses and the public, the public sector--or those wishing to serve it--began to adapt them.

Smooth Madison Avenue-type commercials were being produced for television and radio. Political brochures and mailers were being written for various voter groups that were classified by sex, age, race, income, and their attitudes on a variety of subjects. Voter solicitation by telephone was applying AT&T-style telemarketing approaches. And the typical electronic mailgram, which we associated with Western Union, has been designed to carry political messages.

Computers, satellite dishes, fax machines, electronic bulletin boards, fiber optics, laser optical videodiscs, videocassette recorders, and stylized databases have become common tools in campaigns. And they are being used to reach voters.

Armstrong describes at some length the importance of campaigning by mail. As a junk-mail writer, he argues that "junk-mail junkies" have fine-tuned their methods for reaching the consumer. Plain white envelopes and "Dear Friend" letters are no longer the rule. Today, the outer envelopes have large, bold and colorful letters with messages like, "Priority Express Mail," "Urgent! Important Voter Information Enclosed" or "Official Documents--Time Dated Materials Inside." With the use of sophisticated computer equipment and laser printing, the direct- mail letter will be personal and appeal to the recipient's emotions, rather than their intelligence. The computer will also personalize the reply card and return envelope with a dollar amount selected and a personalized note handwritten in a different ink color. Armstrong reminds us that the success of direct-mail is determined by the number of checks written by prospective voters, even if they only represent a 2-3% response.

Nevertheless, oversaturation and overutilization of our televisions, radios, videotapes, cassettes, discs, and mailboxes, and growing competition between the private sector and federal, state and local candidates for access to voters may create a backlash to politics and the political process.

Voters may tire rather quickly of the ever increasing amount of political mail they receive and television exposure given to candidates. Add the mail pieces and television commercials that bombard the consumer daily, there will be a point at which the new approaches will become counterproductive. In districts where campaigning for federal, state, county, city, community college, and school district offices seems like an annual event, voters will grow apathetic and tired of a mailbox full of brochures and a barrage of television and radio commercials.

Until then, however, the ideas and recommendations that are captured by "The Next Hurrah" will give every student of the American political process and those aspiring to become a politician everything they wanted to know about the latest technologies in political communications.

Campaigns will never be the same.

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