The musings of one Andrew Langer - defender of liberty, passionate protector of individual rights, foodie. (Note: Said Musings of Andrew Langer are his own, and the views represented herein are likewise his views, and not the views of any other people, entities, foodstuffs, etc [unless otherwise specifically and explicitly noted].)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Object Lesson #435… Campaign Materials and The Importance of Proof-Reading

Yes, I know it’s not the 435th object lesson on this blog, it’s the 2nd, but I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that I’ve only had two object lessons here on the blog.

That being said, I’m not going to go back and re-hash the importance of object lessons – the point is, the more hands-on, personal, and experiential the lesson is, the more it will be driven in.

Today, we’re going to talk about campaign materials. The most important lesson I’ve ever learned about campaign materials (no, it wasn’t an object lesson) was from a woman named Megan Owen, a close friend from William and Mary who later went on to be one of the youngest Democratic political strategists in Virginia history (she may have been the youngest person to ever manage a House of Delegates Campaign).

Megan’s lesson to me one late-summer day, as we were driving through Northern Virginia and looking at the veritable seas of campaign signs, was all about the point of those signs. Generally, they’re to be used where people are driving by, and their entire purpose is to hammer in name recognition. So, they’re not to be cluttered with text, and should simply have the name in the biggest, boldest, most-legible letters possible (preferably with high contrast).

That lesson comes back to me around every election season, because I invariably see a sign that violates these rules. Either there’s too much text, the name is too small, there’s no contrast, etc… In any case, the message isn’t delivered…

For instance, one of my favorites was for a local candidate on the shore, Carol Fordonski. The way her signs (including her bumper stickers) were done, it looked like her name was Carol, and she was running “for Donski” – as though “Donski” were elected office, and Carol was her last name.

There’s also the issue of being careful with your message and your rhetoric – you never want to say something so, well, impolite would be a soft way of putting it, strident might be better… that if something were to go horribly wrong, that message wouldn’t come back to haunt you.

A good example (and I wish I had a copy of it handy) was a piece of literature sent out in opposition to Senator Paul Wellstone’s position on the estate tax (better known as the “death tax”). This piece of literature happened to have an image of a tombstone on one side (symbolizing the death of the “death tax”) and a picture of the senator on the opposite side.

And it happened to be dropped in the mail the day before the late senator’s plane crashed, killing him. So as the state was in mourning over their loss, thousands of people received this piece of campaign literature in their mailboxes. That organization had quite a bit of ‘splaining to do as a result.

Finally, there’s the most basic issue of campaign literature – and it’s the lesson we were taught when we were first having to write book reports for school: proof-read your work! We’re exhorted to assiduously check resumes for typos, because nothing stands out more or makes a resume more certain to be tossed than a glaring typographical error. It’s especially true when you’re someone making a point about education (like the time the DC Teachers’ Union paid for an ad on the sides of busses that contained a glaring grammatical error).

I was home in New York over the weekend, and happened to notice that there’s a fairly tense race for control of the Greenburgh Town Board happening. Paul Feiner, the 16-year incumbent, is in a contentious fight to remain Town Supervisor, and there are dueling signs all over the place: Feiner’s “I’m With Paul” signs in green, and his opponents’ “I’m with so-and-so, and they’re with me…” signs in red.

And because I’ve got an academic interest, I picked up the latest pamphlet sent out to my parents from Mr. Feiner… and I was aghast as I picked up a typo. Then another one. Then a third, and a fourth (and my wife’s keen eye found a fifth).

I’ve scanned in the pamphlet – and here it is (click to enlarge):

I’ll admit that the typo in the 4th paragraph is probably a bit nit-picky on my part, but the others? Well, to me there are a couple of messages that this sends to the voters:

- Possible desperation (ie, the race has been so taxing that this last-ditch piece of material had to be sent out quickly and couldn’t go through the right review);
- A lack of caring for detail (that the voters wouldn’t be savvy enough to notice);
- That Feiner is too tired, or has been in office for too long to either notice or care.

All in all, none are good messages to send.

Neither is this one, for that matter. It’s not a typo, but I circled it because I found it both outrageous and foolish: “We will fairly evaluate every decision – welcome your input and vote our conscience.”

It seems to me that if you’re going to fairly evaluate every decision and welcome the public’s input, then voting your conscience shouldn’t even be an issue. In fact, it says to me that what you’re going to do is ignore the input of the voters, or at the very most give it a cursory glance.

I believe Edmund Burke (as well as countless others) was cast out of office for that very admission: if you’re not going to listen to the voters and “vote your conscience” then you run the risk of being voted out of office in favor of someone who will.

Listen, I’m not immune from typos (a number of people have pointed them out here). Nor am I immune from making stupid statements. But when the stakes are highest, I do take the care to check my work—and it’s a lesson that veteran pols should know all too well. Campaign pieces such as this are akin to resumes - and if you're trying to impress someone to either hire you for a new job or retain you in your current one, then double-checking your work is of the highest priority.

And if they don’t, they’re foolhardy if they think the voters won’t notice, or care.

- Andrew Langer

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