President Barack Obama’s victory over Republican rival Mitt Romney marked the end of one of the most combative – and expensive – political races in US history.
But while most Americans will be glad to see an end to the stream of venomous ads, punditry and sloganeering that seem to have dominated everything else for the past 11 months, one group that may secretly wish the election fight would go on is the US commercial printing industry.
Though it lagged behind TV and radio, commercial print – most notably direct mail, but also wide-format signage and specialty printing like bumper stickers – received a welcome shot in the arm from the $6bn that the Center for Responsive Politics estimates was spent this year on local, state and national elections across the US.
Even the beleaguered US Postal Service (USPS) received a boost from the surge of political direct mail. A Postal Service spokesperson told PrintWeek the USPS did $337m in political mail – not including election mail such as ballots and registration forms – in 2010, adding, “We’re already $50m over that as of last week.”
Russell Price, president of Landover, Md.-based Mount Vernon Printing, which is part of Consolidated Graphics, does a lot of election year printing and said, “We did everything from presidential all the way to down to local initiatives. Here in Maryland we had ballot initiatives for casino gambling and gay marriage and we had work from local races. The volumes were bigger than 2010 because you had a presidential elections as well as the congressional and other races. But it did in fact exceed 2008 as well.”
US print industry guru and Rochester Institute of Technology Professor Emeritus Frank Romano told PrintWeek he’s personally noticed the increase amount of political mailers this year, as well as the increased use of variable data in those pieces.
“I got more pieces this year than in any other election year and they all said, ‘Dear Frank’ printed digitally,” he said. “I also saw more postcards than any other pieces. I got a few self-mailers and even a few letters — but I would say postcards and especially the jumbo postcards were numbers one.”
Price agreed, adding, “The most common size we did was the 8 ½” by 14″ or 8 ½ by 13″ and the reason political marketers like them is the postal carrier will wrap it around the rest of a person’s mail before putting it in the mail box, so when you pull it out, it’s right there.”
Romano said he also saw more lawns signs than in election years past, adding “Many of the signs in peoples lawns now have the picture of the candidate on them—this is because of wide format inkjet. In the past these were done with screen printing, but today they’re done with inkjet.”
Jerry Cerasale, senior VP – government affairs for the Direct Marketing Association, said he’d also seen increased variety in political mailers. “You’re getting some bigger pieces of mail, rather than the three fold pamphlet/flier,” he explained to PrintWeek. “We’re also starting to see mailings be coordinated with email, or with phone calls.”
Of course, no one is kidding themselves — 2012 didn’t mark some sort of political printing renaissance. In some cases campaigns put money into direct mail, simply because the other ad vehicles were taken.
“Printing did not grow as much you might have expected because most of the real dollars went into television and radio,” said Romano.
“With the Romney and Obama campaigns — as well as the Super PACS — buying up so much TV ad time, a lot of political money for the lesser races got pushed out of broadcast TV and that way ended up in cable or radio or mail,” explained Cerasale. “What happened this time around was they bought all the TV money could buy — and the result of that in election year 2012 was that more state and local races used mail much more than they did in the past.”
Cerasale noted he did see some of more sophisticated tools of consumer driven direct mail creeping into political campaigns this year — adding it may be just the beginning. “You haven’t seen a lot of QR codes in political direct mail, but there was some and I think you’ll see a lot more in the future,” he said, adding that by 2014 or 2016, political direct marketers may be linking political mailers to mobile apps or mobile landing pages.
He also said the increased use of analytics in the campaigns meant that some in the direct marketing industry may have benefitted more in the election year than others.
“The data compilers and analyst companies who played a role in who the campaigns decided to target and who they wanted to get out and vote, have done well, as have some of the companies who put together mailing lists and do some fulfillment,” Cerasale said.
“The one area where we’re not sure when it comes to political marketing in 2012 is social media,” he continued. “There have been stories on the millions of “likes” that Romney and Obama had on social media, but what still hasn’t been determined is whether those translate into votes. So the efficacy of putting money into social media is something that’s going to be studied hard and analyzed in the coming months to see come the next election where you’re going to be putting your money.”
The Printing Industry of America estimates that election years add on the average of 1% to US commercial printing revenues – but that really tells only part of the story of how important the 2012 political campaigns were to the printing community.
For many printers, especially those in battleground states such as Ohio, Florida, Iowa and Virginia, the elections of 2012 were the first positive development in their business since the 2009 recession.
“Commercial print overall is down, but what is going to make this a good year is the elections — and because of the Olympics,” Romano said. “You saw a lot of promotions tied to the Olympics that caused a surge in print, though that was not shared by all the printing companies. However, when we move into next year, there’s nothing major happening. So you really can’t use 2012 in the trend lines for the US printing industry — it’s going to be a blip. And we’re going to have to wait until 2013 or 2014 to know where we really are in print.”