Promotional products have been used in election campaigns throughout history, but many of those items remain relevant today. Even in a time when television and Internet ads may be the focus of campaign advertising spending, promotional products still have a place—and some new uses—in elections. We spoke to a political science professor and an industry supplier to see how distributors should run their campaigns for winning over candidates' advertising budgets.
Buttons, banners and T-shirts remain top picks, said Justin Whitely Holmes, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. "They do a couple things," he explained. "One is they let people express themselves politically and show, 'Hey, I'm on this candidate's team.' The second thing is just … to have that logo out there."
At supplier Stouse Inc., New Century, Kan., Michael Stoeck, its director of sales and marketing, ranks Stouse's biggest election sellers as signs, window decals and roll labels (which he deems a less expensive version of a button). Not only are these products cost effective, but they work, he said. "There's a lot of local voters that are uneducated on a county race, a city office, a sheriff or something like that, and so quite honestly the person's name that is out there and is recognized more often than not will get the vote because the other candidates—just no one ever heard of them," he said. "And so when those people do go vote, they go, 'Oh, I recognize Smith. I saw his signs. I was at the parade. I saw his volunteers.' And Smith gets the votes because he bought the promotional decals to promote himself."
As for imprints, digital color provides the option of adding an image of the candidate to these products instead of just a name and office for which the candidate is running. "A four-color process sign is going to cost more than a two-color sign, but it also puts a face with a name, so instead of just seeing the name, it's 'Oh, that's a real person. I've seen him before. I've seen her before,'" Stoeck said.
The addition of QR codes has provided a huge boost and can do much more than link to an aspirant's website. "I could scan it and it might open up an events page for that candidate as far as where they're going," Stoeck said. "For smaller campaigns, it might list ways I could donate, ways I could get involved and assist the candidate [or] where I could volunteer. It could link directly to a YouTube video where the candidate is addressing me, the voter, automatically. There are a lot of different avenues it could go to—not just a website."
Political campaigns go beyond candidates. When it comes to direct mail pieces, political action committees are a top client. "They are sort of constrained on what they can spend money on and that's something that comes within the realm of the protected First-Amendment speech and whatnot, and they have quite a bit of latitude there compared to a lot of things they can do with their money," Holmes said.
Stoeck also listed causes, such as ballot initiatives, as key selling points, as well. "Almost as important as a distributor selling to a candidate to get those people, getting to that cause is a really good thing as well, because when the library needs funds, the school board is trying to raise funds and they have a proposal—those are usually well-funded campaigns and a distributor could differentiate himself as a local source. 'Hey, you could go online, but I'm local. I'm here in the community. That school bond issue is important to me as well.'"
Accessing Federal Races
Nowadays, since presidential hopefuls have a broader and more engaged following, some are selling their merchandise as a fundraising opportunity, instead of giving it away. "To some extent the days are over where [promotional products] are just meant to raise awareness," Holmes said. "Although that's certainly a goal, but a lot of it really is a fundraising activity."
According to a 2012 USA Today article, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney used their merchandise as a fundraising tool, counting each purchase as a campaign contribution, adding buyers to mailing lists and soliciting them for further donations. In 2008, Obama raised $37 million from merchandise, with an average order amount of $43. "You might have a lot of people who wouldn't normally give a political contribution, but might buy a pen or bumper sticker or something like that, who get swept into it that way," Kent Cooper, a former FEC official and co-founder of Political MoneyLine, which tracks money in politics, told USA Today.
Keeping It Local
While name recognition typically isn't an issue with a presidential race, it does come into play in other races. "If you think about 2012, who didn't know who Mitt Romney and Barack Obama were at least from a name standpoint? Further down the ballot on the other hand … some of those things may be much more about name recognition," Holmes said. "I can say from personal experience, my dad ran for office when I was a kid for a local judgeship and the bulk of his campaign really was name recognition. It was all about putting up yard signs and things of that nature."
Not only do local prospects need to get their name out there, but they are easier to access, Stoeck said. "Everybody always goes for the senator race, the governor race. They want to get the presidential [race]," he said. "I'll tell you what—the guy running for sheriff's office—he's going to buy some stuff. It doesn't always have to be big."
Voters could sway others if they place signs for a presidential contender—who likely already has a high level of name recognition—and their picks for local offices together in their yard, Holmes suggested. So bundling them together for clients could make for a bigger sale. "That actually does provide voters with some information, because if somebody has out an Obama sign or a Romney sign, then a bunch of local candidates that you've never thought about, that may subconsciously pair those candidates together. It might give the sense, 'Hey, if you like a certain brand of politics, this local candidate is the way to get there too.'"
Stoeck also suggested positioning yourself as a local source for promotional products. "Establish yourself as, 'Hey, I'm here locally. You can come to me. I will come to your office. I'm not just some online guy. You don't know the quality of that print. I will send you samples. I will get you a proof,'" he said.
The Effects of Promo
Not only do promotional items let end-users showcase their allegiance or plan to vote for a particular candidate, they also provide other perks. "A campaign sign in a supporter's yard is going to be seen every single time I drive by on my way to work, when I'm walking my dog or whatever it happens to be," Stoeck said. "If I'm behind a car at a light, and its got a decal in its window, I'm seeing that candidate's name the entire election cycle while that supporter has that decal on the car. So when you look at that cost per impression, it's not just that initial one, it's the additional, and those additional touches might propel me to go and look at their social media and what they're doing there and that's where the whole campaign program comes into play."
Promotional products also help voters to stay engaged, make a political statement and drive a political hopeful to victory. "If you get somebody to buy and wear your T-shirts and things like that, it probably engages them in ways that makes them more likely to remember to show up and vote on Election Day, which is a fairly big problem for campaigns—making sure your supporters come out. So if you can keep engaging them, merchandise can serve that role as well," Holmes said.