Political Magazines: In Search Of The Right Tone

Political Magazines: In Search Of The Right Tone

Publications in the political arena have found the world much-changed since September 11. With President Bush still enjoying high approval ratings, conservative magazines are finding it a lot easier to come up with creative tests and copy tweaks. Those on the liberal side, however, must use a decidedly more bipartisan approach, while still being true to their left-minded missions. Here’s a look at some recent mailings:


In January, National Review dropped two test packages that take distinct approaches: lower price versus new creative. One was a prior control – an 11 1/2″ x 5″ stretch package (originally designed by Ken Scheck in September 2000), freshened with a reduced offer of $14.99 for 16 issues (one issue free). This is the title’s only price discount test in nearly a decade. The offer is 25 percent less than the standard soft offer of $19.99 for the same eight-month, 16-issue (one free) term.

The lead teaser is as intriguing today as it was when first mailed over a year ago: “George W. Bush’s worst mistake.” (Answer: Trading Sammy Sosa when Bush owned the Texas Rangers.) The inner components – a four-page sales letter from NR’s figurehead, William F. Buckley Jr., lift letter and BRE – remain largely unchanged, except for minor copy revisions to keep references to current events timely.

According to NR circulation director Terry Maloney, the reduced offer was tested for the first time in September to take advantage of the ABC’s rule changes. Because that test found a 20 percent increase in gross response over the original control and standard offer, NR’s circ team decided to try it again in this most recent mailing to 45,000 prospects.

The second test package – also mailed to 45,000 prospects – is a 6″ x 9″ that plugs directly into NR readers’ pro-Bush sentiments. The outer asserts: “George W. Bush gets his copy at the White House. Now yours can come straight to you…” The contents of the package are similar to the control’s, but the four-page sales letter comes from editor Rich Lowry rather than Buckley. “Part of the test is to determine if we’ll get the same response using a letter signed by Lowry, instead of Buckley,” Maloney explains. (Buckley’s signature is, however, on the lift letter.) Pricing for this alternate package (also designed by Scheck) uses the control offer, so that the new creative’s impact can be clearly measured.

Thus far, the revised, price-discount control has been pulling 12 percent better than the 6″ x 9″ test package, Maloney reports. Nevertheless, she says that she doubts that the discount package will prevail as the new control, because the discounted price test done last September is proving to have a significant downside. “On the tail end, we’ve seen a slow-down in conversions,” she says. “Fewer people who accepted the lower-priced offer are opting to renew at our standard renewal rate of $39 for a full year.”


Liberal bastion Mother Jones experimented with three new outer envelopes last December, in mailings to 500,000 prospects. In addition to its standard mailing of its #10 control (which features the Edwardian black-and-white photo of “Mom,” the bespectacled, stern-looking founder), MJ mailed a tweaked version of the package. Traditionally, cartoon bubbles next to “Mom’s” prim visage have been used to spout unexpectedly aggressive tag lines. But in this test piece, the long-running “Ready for ballsy, ass-kicking, truth-telling, free-thinking, hell-raising Real News?” has been has been toned down to a kinder, gentler “Ready for straight-shooting, independent Real News – about the war on terrorism and lots more?”

“We had received a few complaints about the ‘harsh’ words on our control in the past,” explains MJ special projects manager Micah Berek, “and after September 11, we wanted to see if the ‘kinder’ text could be as effective.”

Another #10 test effort featured a whole new creative approach, juxtaposing an illustration of President Bush next to updated cover copy that reflects concerns without being blatantly negative: “Can this man: Protect us from terrorists? Get us off the oil train? Rescue our tanking economy?”

The final #10, whose outer was bright yellow instead of standard white, continued the new creative strategy by invoking Bush, as well as Vice President Richard B. Cheney. Within a bold, black box, the outer’s copy asks “Mssrs. Bush and Cheney” three questions under the headings: Why, Will and Are: “Why didn’t our spies see September 11 coming?; Will bombing Afghanistan save us when bombing Iraq didn’t?; Are we sacrificing our security for oil?”

“We used these probing questions to get people to open the envelope,” Berek says. “Even if people don’t agree with the questions, they’ll be more likely to look inside for curiosity’s sake.”

All of the efforts, including the control, included a four-page sales letter from publisher Jay Harris, a letter from “Mom,” a lift note from editor-in-chief Roger Cohn and a BRE. To freshen the packages, a revamped lift note was included. The note, which formerly read, “Think back a year ago…,” was updated to the more timely: “Think back before September 11…”

The control’s no-nonsense “100% risk-free” cash offer of $10 for six issues was used in all efforts, but a first-ever premium gift on gross order (a “Special Report on the CIA”) was added to sweeten the deal.

So far, average gross response across the control and three test packages has been approximately 2.8 percent, with the control and the Bush-themed test packages outperforming the other two tests, according to Berek. “They both have the least amount of copy on their outers,” he notes, “but that copy may be triggering more of an emotional response.” The “mild-mannered” package’s outer may be less “thought-provoking,” he speculates. In the end, however, Berek predicts that MJ’s control will not be de-throned. (The control was written by Judy Weiss, and the test outers were written by Phillip Frazer and Jay Harris.)


Liberal thought magazine The American Prospect also softened its outer envelope teasers a bit. Like many political publications, TAP has used sensational expose copy (“The Sick Secret of Managed Care” and “The Untaught Truth About Public School Vouchers…”) to lure left-leaning prospects into opening its packages. But the title’s latest efforts strike a more balanced note, focusing on the issue of safety versus freedom (“How can we make America a safe place without sacrificing our own liberties?”).

“We toned down our creative to reflect the national mood,” says associate publisher Tim Lyster. “When our mailings went out [last November], we figured that talk about possible infringements on American civil liberties after September 11 was becoming more mainstream. And the message that we wanted to get across was that it’s not unpatriotic to discuss issues beyond those immediately surrounding September 11.”

TAP’s control, a black-and-white, 6″ x 11″ stretch package, was revised to deliver the new message. Nine separate efforts (including the control, whose outer included the hard-hitting “The Sick Secret of Managed Care” teaser) were mailed to a total of 440,000 prospects. Each revised control experimented with price, offering 22 issues (one free) for $9.95, $14.95 (the control offer) or $19.95. Each also featured a four-page or two-page sales letter using varied takes on the word “free” in the eyebrow copy (“How Do We Defend America as a Free Society” or “You’ve Been Selected to Receive a FREE Copy of The American Prospect Magazine,” respectively).

Each test package also included a brochure highlighting the magazine’s editorial and recent redesign, and a BRC with a “Free” involvement sticker.

So far, combined overall gross response to the campaign mailing has been averaging 40 percent lower than past control efforts, and net has been averaging 31 percent lower, Lyster reports. He attributes the results to timing (“Anything in the mail at that time was still looked at with suspicion,” he says), possible list fatigue and the outer copy changes.

“While we will continue to use freedom as a rallying cry in the future, it’s apparently not a topic that has the legs of the ones we’ve used in the past, like pension plans, globalization and the economy,” he says.

Still, Lyster notes that tests that included the four-page “freedom” letter did somewhat better than those with the two-page “free issue” letter. “The ‘freedom’ letter may have resonated with people more once they opened the envelope,” he guesses.

Not surprisingly, the $9.95 soft offer of 22 issues (one free) also increased gross response. But, like MJ, TAP has found in previous price tests that discounted offers tend to depress full-price conversions too much to become new control offers. (TAP’s control package was designed by Richard Riccelli. The revised control packages were conceived in-house with assistance from ProCirc.)

Seen in the Mail items are identified by

MarketRelevance.com , an online direct mail and email promotion tracking resource. CM staff conducts the interviews.

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