Ah, autumn in San Francisco. The weather is getting cooler, days are getting shorter and leaves are falling … or should I say leaflets.
Yes, ’tis the season of big, glossy campaign mailers. The heated race between Supervisor Julie Christensen and former Supervisor Aaron Peskin is blowing colorful flyers across North Beach and Chinatown. Along with $12 million in hotel taxes, Airbnb has given The City piles of “No on F” leaflets.
Every day I clear my mailbox and toss leaflets into my recycling bin without a second’s glance. But the environmentalist in me is getting annoyed. Does anyone think direct political mailers are a good use of campaign and environmental resources? Why has San Francisco, a model of innovation and sustainability, allowed such a wasteful practice to endure?
Politicians have won campaigns without sending out a single leaflet. Gov. Rick Perry beat Sen. Kay Baily Hutchinson in the 2010 Texas gubernatorial primary by more than 20 points without sending campaign mail or printing lawn signs. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also didn’t rely on any mailers to win the Democratic primary in 2013.
Instead of wasting resources on mailers, the Perry and de Blasio campaigns spent money on outreach that actually engaged voters. I spoke to Bill Hyers, de Blasio’s campaign manager, who told me the campaign decided to focus on television and digital ads to reach voters. He said direct mail is not always a forward-thinking strategy, and de Blasio wants to be a forward-thinking mayor.
“But every campaign is different,” Hyers admitted. “You have to do the research and figure out if mail has strategic value.”
Direct mail may have a higher strategic value where voters don’t have access to Internet. But this is San Francisco. The City Controller’s 2013 survey of San Francisco residents reported that 88 percent of respondents have Internet at home — a higher connectivity rate than California and the United States as a whole. When the Board of Supervisors passed legislation banning unsolicited Yellow Page books in 2011, it did so because many people in The City have access to the Internet, and the books created unnecessary waste.
Why campaigns want to spend money on direct mail in San Francisco is even harder to understand given the advantages of social media. According to JP Petrucione, partner in Social Stream Media and former direct mail consultant, campaigns can use Facebook to target voters more precisely than direct mail. Plus, Facebook allows consultants to measure voter engagement. Campaigns that send out leaflets can only hope my recycle bin isn’t too close to my mailbox.
Obviously, social media has advantages. But the most recent papers filed with the San Francisco Ethics Commission indicate campaigns aren’t relying on it. Neither the Re-elect Sheriff Ross B. Mirkarimi nor the Vicki Hennessy for Sheriff campaigns spent money on social media ads. While the Peskin for Supervisor campaign spent approximately $100 on Facebook ads, it paid Precise Printing and Mailing, a direct mail company in South San Francisco, approximately $30,000. The Christensen for Supervisor campaign spent no money on social media.
Why aren’t campaigns engaging voters in San Francisco better? Why do they insist on showering us with leaflets? I’m not sure. Only political consultants know the strategy. But if I had to guess, I think political consultants keep direct mail around because it’s profitable to them. Direct mail is a multimillion dollar industry with a strong foothold in The City. A 2005 Los Angeles Times article on the industry gave San Francisco the dubious distinction of the “Democratic junk mail capital of the world.”
If campaigns care about San Francisco, this isn’t a distinction they’ll perpetuate. We’re a city known for disruption and innovation, not wastefulness. This autumn, the 49ers are giving San Franciscans enough grief. If political consultants want to pile leaflets on our front doors, perhaps they should sweep them up too.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist, who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.