What I learned from political attack ads in 2018

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By John Boyanoski, president, Complete PR 

With about a week to go in every election, I start collecting the various pieces of media that get jammed in my mailbox every afternoon.

Not because I read them to learn about candidates. That would be pointless. I enjoy them because I like to study the various designs that the campaigns come up with. Not going to lie. As soon as I see the little white mail van stop on my block, I am like a kid on Christmas morning. What kind of crazy stuff will be coming in the mail today? Ooh, an attack ad. Ooh, that guy made a 12-page newspaper and mailed it! Ooh, my bank statement. Oh, wait, that isn’t that exciting.

Election season to PR hacks like me is what Fashion Week is to designers. We are seeing the best of the best and the worst of the worst all at the same time. We are seeing future trends and colossal failures.

However, as someone who has worked on campaigns in the past (I always say I am going to quit, but I end up doing them) from the public relations side, I am also always a little disheartened by these mailers. There is a ton of effort put into these things. There is a ton of money spent on these things. There is a lot of creative effort that goes for nothing.

And 99 percent of it is forgotten. Never looked at. Never read. Except by people like me who review them for subtle signs of what political PR folks are thinking may be working. So here is what I saw this year that hopefully will guide you when you decide to run for office in the future.

  • There are no standard sizes. I don’t think I got one piece of mail that measured the same size as another one. It used to be political mail was two sizes: small and oversized. This year, I got pieces that were trifold, 14-by-20, one that resembled a paint brochure, four-page magazines, and the 12-page, full-sized newspaper. Seriously, someone took the time to create a newspaper and mail it out. Conclusion: It’s smart to stand out, but hokey doesn’t work.
  • Everyone was an outsider. OK, not everyone, but it seems like every candidate’s mailer I got touted their outsider status. So many outsiders. It’s like an S. E. Hinton book. If they are so outside and telling me how bad the inside is, why do you want to be inside? Conclusion: Outsider status doesn’t work when everyone is an outsider. Come up with a new word. Heck, if one person wrote, “not an insider,” that would have been interesting.
  • Blurry photos. I noticed several attack ads that used blurry and darkened photos of the person they were trying to “ding” with the ad. This was actually a good idea. It shows their opponent as subtly shady. That was smart. Conclusion: 2018 will be the year of the blurry photos. Mark it down.
  • Wacky websites. This was a first that I noticed. Candidates created websites whose sole purpose is to cut down another opponent. And then they put that information on a mailer. It may have happened before locally, but I noticed it twice this year. To be honest, I then tracked down the website. Conclusion: The gloves are off now. I see everyone doing this in the next election cycle. Heck, we have another few weeks in this cycle. It may be happening now.
  • Fewer guns. South Carolina seemed to buck a trend of having Republican candidates posing with guns. I say “seems” because there were no guns I saw in the last week of the campaign. Doesn’t mean there weren’t guns showing up before. Conclusion: Not sure. After some recent backlash about guns being used in campaign videos in other states, local campaigns may have shied away. However, there are still a lot of guns being shown in social media ads.

And now I have to wait until Halloween season for the next round of mailers as candidates gear up for November.

John Boyanoski is the president of Complete PR, a full-service public relations firm located in Greenville that handles media relations, crisis communications, governmental affairs, and social media. Learn more at www.completepr.net. And he approved this message.

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