Jim Elliott almost missed a big telephone call one summer night about a year ago. He had settled into his hot tub with his wife and a few friends and was trying to relax. It was Saturday, three days before the 1989 special election, and for Elliott, the end of another grueling political campaign.
During big elections, Western Graphics, the company he owns, sends out more than 15 million pieces of political campaign mail in behalf of as many as 150 local and state politicians. Because he is regarded as one of the top political-mail specialists in America, Elliott is inundated with business in the weeks before election day. When it’s finally too late to drop another mass mailing at the post office, Elliott usually can relax for a few days. But during the summer of 1989, he didn’t get even that much rest.
“We got out of the spa, and the phone was ringing off the hook, and it is Tricia Hunter’s consultant from San Francisco, and he says,
‘Can you do a mailing tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, this is Saturday night. The election’s Tuesday.’ He said, ‘Can you do it?’ I said, ‘I’ll call you back.’ So I got on the phone and called my printer and called my computer guy. He had the list on his computer, and I called back and said, ‘Sure, we can do it.’ ”
As Elliott tells it, Republican Tricia Hunter, who was running for the California State Assembly, had been attacked by her opponent Dick Lyles with a last-minute hit piece featuring Charlton Heston. “[Heston] was saying that you don’t want to vote for Tricia Hunter because she’s supported by the ACLU. Lyles dropped it on Friday, knowing that there was no way we could respond. You know — how do you vote against Moses? He wouldn’t lie, would he?”
Hunter’s comeback, Elliott says, would be that she’s not supported by the ACLU, and you should go ahead and vote for Tricia.
The next day, Sunday, was a blur of activity for Elliott. “I got a printer to open up his shop. Then we had to buy the paper at the Price Club. We delivered 25,000 pieces to the post office. I had money in the postage meter — for somebody else, a credit union or something — so we could put the 25-cent postage on it and got it in the mail that afternoon.”
When asked whether his last-minute foray fully complied with postage regulations, Elliott smiles. “[San Diego Postmistress] Margaret Sellers admonished me that I shouldn’t have done that. I just dropped it on the dock.
“It was delivered pretty much the next day, and Tricia Hunter won by just 100 and some votes on Tuesday. It wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for that piece,” in Elliott’s opinion. “Since that election, I’ve always made a point to have plenty of money in the meter and paper going into the final weekend, because you never know what is going to happen.”
Over the past 20 years, a new industry, collectively referred to as direct-mail marketing, has been developing. Two decades ago, merchants and politicians who wanted to promote themselves or their products took out big ads in local newspapers. Today they are likely to send their messages through the post office instead. It’s a direct, relatively inexpensive way of reaching the public. Critics, including the publishers of daily newspapers, lament the change but have been unable to do much except complain.
In recent years, the deluge of commercial mail has risen dramatically with the improvements in computer-driven equipment and laser printing devices. The direct mailer can now crank out promotional messages faster and more selectively to even more people than ever before. The growth of the industry has created new specialties for printers, computer programmers, mailing-list brokers, and political consultants, and the refinements appear virtually unlimited.
When Elliott thinks back on it, he finds it hard to believe how fortunate he was to open a small direct-mail house just before the industry began to head skyward.
Now 50, Elliott grew up in Chula Vista and mbarked on an eclectic career after graduating from college. “I sold potato chips for Laura Scudder’s. I sold television sets for Sears. I was a stockbroker. I did all kinds of things.
“I went to work for Cubic Corporation in 1970. They had a very small direct-mail department, which I didn’t work for to start with. When they did away with the group I was working with, they said, ‘Why don’t you go over and work in direct mail?’ The previous president had become enamored with getting involved in direct mail.”
At the time. Cubic handled its own direct-mail promotion and wanted to sell that service to outside firms. “This, by the way, happens all the time. You know, they say, ‘Oh, we can do it in the dead of night and use all this equipment that otherwise would be idle,’ and ‘Oh, this is such a wonderful business to get into.’ It’s not quite that easy, of course; but they had all this stuff, and they wanted to do something with it.
“When I got involved in the direct-mail thing at Cubic, we had two inserting machines, no labeling machine, just a bunch of computers and nothing else. But thanks primarily to Senator Jim Mills and Senator Clair Burgener, we found out that there’s a place called Sacramento, and there’s a lot of mail that comes out of Sacramento. And so I started flying to Sacramento every week.”
What Elliott discovered there was a growing demand for direct-mail services from an assortment of politicians hungry for votes. In the early ’70s, most political mail took the form of the constituent newsletter, a monthly, four-page generic update about the legislative activities of the politician who mailed it out. Because taxpayers picked up the tab, the newsletters were a popular way for incumbents to bolster their political standing at home.
“One night when I was up in Sacramento, I went out to dinner with three members of the Assembly,” he recalls, “and they all said, ‘Jim, why don’t you form your own company, because if you do, most of the members of the legislature will follow you.’ ” That was in 1974. Within weeks he quit Cubic and started Western Graphics with $5000 that he and his wife had slaved as a down payment for a house. “That was the only money we ever put in the business.”
Elliott and his wife Ann rented two desks from Bill Pugh, who owns Modem Printing and Mailing, a mail house across the street from the main post office on Midway Drive. “I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me that chance. He didn’t have to do that, and now we are one of his competitors. We had some very grim times for a while. It was probably eight years before we felt that we were going to be in business past the next payroll.”
In the 17 years since Elliott started Western Graphics, he has handled evety manner and size of political campaign, from tiny water district measures to state Assembly races to the United States Senate. He estimates he now grosses about $3 million a year and has managed to diversify beyond political newsletters. These days, the large mail room behind his present offices in Lemon Grove is responsible for mailing everything from credit union statements to Christmas and Hanukkah cards to fundraising appeals for the San Diego Symphony.
Still, about half of Elliott’s business is firmly rooted in the sometimes strange, always unpredictable world of California politics, full of overblown egos, corruption, and perpetual infighting. And he’s often hired by opposing sides of a single election race. Elliott has been a friend, as opposed to a political ally, of a staggering variety of politicians and their consultants — from Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and State Senator Lucy Killea, both Democrats, to Republicans like U.S. Congressmen Duncan Hunter and Bill Lowery.
Because of this, Elliott is often assured of being associated with a winner no matter which way a race goes.
“Willie Brown is my number-one customer in politics, but I’m a Republican through and through. I’m also a businessman with 45 families to feed, and I think that anyone has a right to buy my services. But I will tell you that when [white supremacist] Tom Metzger called when he was running for Congress, I didn’t get involved in a big argument with him, I just said, ‘Gee, I don’t have time.’ So I do think there are things you don’t do for money.”
Elliott often supplies the art work, design, and layout for his clients’ mailers. At election time, this makes him privy to a lot of inside information, since he is one of the few people in town who sees opposing political mailers well before they are dispatched to voters. Of course, if he ever shared a particular strategy with the opponents, he would soon be out of business. In the down-and-dirty world of political direct mail, Elliott seems as untouchable as Mr. Clean.
“In a lot of ways, I prefer not to do both sides, because then I can give a lot of good ideas on strategy. I can say, ‘I think if the other guy does this, we should do this.’ When we do both sides, what I try to do is handle just one side myself and let one of my customer service reps handle the other side, and I simply don’t know what the other person is doing.”
Elliott must also guard against would-be agents of espionage. “We have to be very concerned about security,” he says, speaking as though he worked in a bank or nuclear plant, not a warehouse hidden in the back alleys of Lemon Grove. “We have locking dumpsters. We have signs everywhere saying, ‘Political people keep out.’ Everybody we don’t know stays out of the back areas.”
In the final days of an election season, with representatives of perhaps 20 or more campaigns clamoring for his attention, Elliott often banishes them all to his parking lot. There he and his staff shuttle between vehicles, frequently dispensing political wisdom and taking orders for new mail pieces at the same time. But sometimes politicians will forget the rules and try to steal their opponents’ plans.
“An elected official stopped by right after [an opponent’s] piece had been written and picked up a copy and then put it in his vehicle and said, ‘I’m leaving.’ Our driver said, ‘No, you aren’t,’ and they had a stand-off right there in the parking lot.” Elliott, always the diplomat, declines to identify the offender by name or by office, but he says that the politician finally backed down only in the face of physical threat. “My warehouseman was ready to punch him in the nose.” When Elliott found out about the incident, he got the official on the phone. “I told that particular person, ‘I’m going to find you another mail house,’ because I wouldn’t tolerate that kind of behavior. The next day the elected official came in and apologized.”
Except for a few war stories, Elliott is tight-lipped about the technical strategies employed by individual campaigns and consultants. “Would you ask a coach to give you his game plan before the big game?” he says laughing. “I’m not going to get into the specifics that were done by my customers, but there was a lot of segmentation done in the last election.”
Market segmentation is the process by which direct-mail marketers take a large mailing list and use various demographic clues to identify only those people likely to be susceptible to an advertiser’s message. The technique works efficiently because of the ease of storing large data bases on tapes or disks and the speed with which computers can sort the raw data into a custom-designed list. For example, voter registration lists can be segmented into households where only two or more Republicans or Democrats are registered to vote or where there are mixed households of both Republicans and Democrats. To avoid wasting postage on nonvoting households, campaign workers can even find out which registered voters have actually bothered to go to the polls in recent elections. Combine computer power with some political savvy, and direct mail can have a significant impact on a candidate’s campaign.
Consider last year’s tussle between Mike Gotch and Jeff Marston to fill the Assembly seat vacated by Lucy Killea when she was elected to the state Senate. Marston, a Republican, had edged out Democrat Gotch in a special election last June. Most observers expected Marston to retain the seat when he met Gotch again a few months later in the November general election. So confident were state Republicans that they reportedly canceled much of Marston’s direct-mail budget and transferred it to a close Assembly race in Orange County. Apparently, they hadn’t anticipated the volley of last-minute, cleverly segmented Gotch mailers, designed by Democratic consultants and handled by Western Graphics.
According to one Gotch insider, “There were seven or eight different letters, each targeted at different categories of voters. Each mailing ranged from 20,000 to 60,000 pieces. Some people got five or six of them. It depended on how many times they came up on our computer sort.” The letters, signed by Gotch supporters, featured such themes as gun control, health care, and education. Reportedly, letters signed by retired military men were sent only to selected homes in generally conservative Clairemont neighborhoods. A letter signed by registered nurses was dispatched to a mailing list of women and other swing voters. Many observers attribute Gotch’s surprise victory over Marston in large part to such adept use of the mail. The consultant conducted the job so efficiently that some dazed and defeated Republican strategists questioned whether it could have been accomplished on such a low budget.
Much of Gotch’s mail campaign was supervised the state Democratic Assembly Caucus, led by Speaker Willie Brown. Over the years, that group, along with the state Democratic party, has compiled a formidable mailing list culled from official voting records of each Assembly district. State Republicans maintain similar files, as does Jim Elliott himself.
The man who produced the customized mailing lists for Gotch insists that the job was no trouble at all. Although he doesn’t want his name used (call him Rex), he operates one of the state’s most sophisticated political direct-mail computer services, based in Los Angeles. “I’ve been doing this since ’84, and that’s all we do, maintain the voter file and enhance it with additional data — phone numbers, ethnicity — for the entire state. Historically, our business is primarily Democratic, but a large part is nonpartisan elections.”
According to Rex, the Gotch campaign, guided by an extremely experienced political consultant from Sacramento, took full advantage of the computer’s ability to segment the voters within Gotch’s district. “It was one of the most brilliant schemes I ever saw put together. Even though it was on a shoestring and it was late, [the consultant] knew exactly what he was doing. He had taken a fairly complex district and cut it into the kinds of segments that were required to reach just the right kind of voters. Pure genius.”
Rex, a 20-year veteran of California politics, says he just prepared the mailing lists based on the criteria provided tty the consultant and never saw any of the final Gotch mailers. But he could tell from the detailed demographic criteria for each list that the campaign was in professional hands. “The fact that somebody thought it out as far down to the obscure levels as he did was so impressive that even the programmer who put the lists together remarked that those cuts were made by a pro.”
As a result, Rex figures, the Gotch mailing got maximum results at a relatively small cost.
“It enables you to spread your budget a lot further than you might otherwise. For example, a 78-year-old woman might not be offended by getting a Sierra Club-endorsement letter, but she might not give a shit about it, so she’s not motivated to vote for your candidate, and you’ve wasted your money. On the other hand, a 25-year-old woman who goes hiking in the mountains is going to be turned on by that stuff. That’s what direct mail is all about. Getting the appropriate messages into the proper hands in the most efficient way possible.”
In Rex’s opinion, Democrats do that better than Republicans at the level of state Assembly and Senate districts. “They seem to understand the districts better. They combine what they know of the district and what they’ve seen from their polling, and they go into the campaign with a better understanding of what the burning local issues are at any given moment, when it counts.” On the other hand, he claims, Republicans do better on the statewide and national campaign level because they are better masters of the 30-second television commercial. “They are more homogeneous, and they throw their message harder, like that Willie Horton spot.
If the stuff they throw sticks, they win. If it doesn’t stick, they lose. Democrats have far better technicians at the local level. On the other hand, the cream of the crop of the Republican consultants do the national races, and it shows in the results.”
Yet another device employed by the Gotch camp was personalized letters produced on a computer-controlled, high-speed laser printer at Western Graphics. Conventional printing techniques would have been more expensive, required far more production time, and been unable to produce the small batches of highly targeted mail at a low cost, a crucial element of the Gotch campaign strategy.
Another example of the use of market segmentation was the primary battle between incumbent Pete Chacon and challenger Celia Ballesteros. Chacon, guided by state Democrats, sent out a volley of targeted direct-mail pieces. Voters who lived in generally black neighborhoods received a letter from Jesse Jackson. Hispanic voters got a card from Father Joe Carroll praising Chacon for his work with immigrants. Ballesteros found it difficult to match Chacon’s money and his brain trust of Sacramento political operatives and was easily defeated in what otherwise might have been a close race. Chacon was also a client of Jim Elliott and Western Graphics.
As Elliott’s business grew, he developed what is widely regarded as the most complete, detailed political direct-mail data base in the county, even better than the one compiled tty the registrar of voters herself. “We get tapes from the registrar after each election, and we superimpose one election on top of another so that we have individual voting histories. Right now, we’ve got the voting histories all the way back to the June primary of ’86, and we can show each and every election when that person showed up to vote and when they didn’t.” And last year, Elliott added even more data to his computer file: the names and addresses of voters using absentee ballots. “We think we know that if someone voted absentee in a given election, they are likely to vote absentee in another election and that as a consequence, we have to get the mail to that person earlier.”
Elliott admits that the collection and storage of such personal details about people’s lives is often criticized as an invasion of privacy. But he argues that in many cases, direct mail is about the only way a modem political candidate can still get his or her message across. “The candidate has to have some way to reach out and talk to the voters, and if you start inhibiting that, then the voter is going to be even less objective than he is today. You can’t go out and buy TV or radio time if you are running for a state Assembly seat or a city council race or a school-district race. Without wasting a tremendous amount of money, direct mail is the only way you can go in and pick up those voters in your area who have a history of voting.
“I think technology, on balance, is good for mankind, but certainly it comes with a lot of side effects. To some extent, you have to fault the voter for not being more perceptive.”
The tide of junk mail has risen to flood stage during this holiday shop-M. ping season.... It fills mailboxes and pours out of mail slots. It piles up on kitchen tables. It is a kind of paper plague.” So lamented Tribune editorial writer Ralph Bennett in a blistering attack published last November. Bennett and other critics of the explosion of bulk mail advertising point to the U.S. Postal Service as an eager contributor to the proliferation. Critics are concerned with both privacy issues and the postal rate structure.
The post office has already begun to compile the first nationwide list of business and residence addresses; it contains 85 million of the country’s roughly 100 million mailing addresses, though not individuals’ names. Postal officials say this is needed to increase the efficiency of its delivery service. But they also acknowledge that the post office plans to license computerized versions of the list to direct mailers. “The post office wants to automate mail sorting, and for that you need good [valid] addresses,” says Mike Cannone, a spokesman for San Diego’s postmistress. “If the post office can provide good addresses, it means lower cost to the post office and to mailers as well.” Privacy advocates, however, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have argued that the master address list is “a step in the wrong direction,” toward more government intrusion into private life.
Even now, the post office keeps track of people who have changed their addresses and then sells the list to direct-mail companies, which use the information to update their own data bases. The postal service has also tested a plan in which individuals could give their Christmas card lists to postal officials and get back a set of preprinted mailing labels. These labels included special bar codes that permit more efficient mail sorting. But criticism arose when word got around that the post office planned to store the lists in its computer files for future use.
Elliott professes not to be worried about these criticisms. “Technology is going to move ahead, and these things are going to increase. I think that there will be some legislation to control some of the abuses, and some of that may be prudent, but I think that it could get out of control. If you start controlling the accumulation of this data, you are going to take a lot of wonderful experiences away from people. For example, using [subscribers] lists from magazines about skiing, a ski store can find all the skiers in the neighborhood and mail them news about a revolutionary kind of new skis. I think that’s a constructive, legitimate thing to do.”
Much of the value that Elliott is able to provide for his clients results from the fact that mailers get a big break in the cost of postage if they presort their material in ZIP code order and bundle it for shipment before taking it to the post office. At present, commercial mass mailers pay only 10.1 cents per piece if they mail in large numbers to a concentrated area. Political mail can cost as little as 5.3 cents per address if mailed by an officially recognized political party. These figures will increase when postal rates go up on February 3, but Ralph Bennett’s Tribune editorial complained of inequities in the new rate structure:
The junk mail mills already are turning out record volumes of unsolicited advertising, but now the Postal Service proposes to encourage even greater volumes by a 30 percent price cut that would come at the same time that the cost of mailing a first-class letter rises from 25 cents to 30 cents, and other postal rates are increased an average of 20 percent.
Elliott claims that Bennett got his facts wrong. “Third-class mail got a bigger hit than first class,” he says. Actually, the truth lies somewhere in between, according to post office spokesman Cannone. Third-class bulk rates will increase by 35 percent, he says, but if the mailer uses address labels with computer-readable bar codes for quicker sorting, the rate of increase will be only 7 percent. First-class mail, he says, would go up by 16 percent to 29 cents. By using bar-coded addresses, third-class mailers can escape much of the proposed cost hikes, which Cannone argues is justified because the post office saves the difference in cost by automating the mail.
But critics, including the American Newspaper Publishers Association, a group composed of owners of large daily newspapers, say that such low rates are an unwarranted taxpayer subsidy. Elliott insists that because of automated handling, direct mail more than pays for itself, and he points out that the publishers have a conflict of interest. “They represent one advertising medium, newspapers, competing with another, direct mail. What disturbs me is every time there’s a postal rate increase, they will editorialize about the evils of direct mail, and they’ll Call it junk mail, and they rarely identify the fact that they are an opponent of our industry.” Elliott claims that letters he has written in reply to such editorials in the San Diego Union have never been published.
For his part, editorialist Bennett candidly acknowledges Elliott’s point that the newspaper business is not unbiased about direct mail. “I think he’s probably right. Maybe we should disclose that we have a stake in the issue. It does compete with the newspaper. But that doesn’t utterly disqualify us from having an opinion about it. Personally speaking, I detest junk mail. I think the post office is prostituting itself just
to fill up its pouches. It’s strictly a survival thing. They are a commercial business now, no longer a public service, and they have to sell their services to whoever they can. My dad was a postmaster up in Oregon, and I have a high regard for the post service as it used to be.” But Jim Elliott built his business by successfully anticipating the future, which for direct mail seems unlimited. The industry has grown large enough to warrant several nationwide professional associations, and direct-mail marketing is an established part of college curricula. Elliott himself occasionally lectures at San Diego State. In addition, direct-mail technology is constantly advancing. During a tour through his cavernous mail room, Elliott points out the elaborate inventory of computers and automated mailing equipment he has assembled over the years to print, address, sort, stuff, compile, weigh, and bundle mail. He proudly runs his hand over a computerized device that automatically calculates how much each piece of mail weighs. “This is state-of-the-art stuff.”
In one corner of the mail room, stacks of advertising brochures for a local electronics company that have just arrived from a printer are being weighed on a giant scale. In another part of the building, 20,000 Christmas cards for a Los Angeles politician are waiting to be inserted into their envelopes. Elliott smiles and gently pats the big stack of outgoing mail. “He sends these out each year to his entire district. It really endears people to him.”