Copywriting Split Testing, Rathergate, and the Bush Draft Scandal
As a copywriter, I'm always looking to better my skill set—so I read a whole lot of copywriting newsletters and books. One of them is Ivan Levison's "Levison Letter."
Ivan's latest issue expressed surprise at the results of an A/B split—a test that changes one variable in a copywriting piece. He had advised the client to format the letter in an old-fashioned typewriter-style font, like Courier--because, in the old days, letters that looked hand-typed usually pulled better. (Direct marketers measure absolutely everything--the number, kind, and quality of the results; it's as much science as art.) But the client was adamant about doing it in Times Roman. So they did an A/B test: 25,000 letters in each font, no other variables changed.
It was a dead heat, and this shocked Ivan. But it doesn't shock me. In fact, I wouldn't have been surprised if the typeset-looking version had outpulled the classic Courier.
Why? Because to the current generation, Times New Roman represents hand-typed. It's the default font in Microsoft Word, the word processor that completely dominates the market. Many people never even touch their font settings. There are probably a lot of people under 30 who've never seen a letter typed on a real typewriter. What Ivan forgot to adjust for is that the principle behind his original conclusions is sound: people respond better to a letter that looks like it was created just for them--but the parameters of what makes that true have changed.
I'm betting that in the last ten years, the only letters you've seen that were typed in Courier were marketing documents, done by direct marketers who didn't realize the territory has shifted. Unless, maybe, you have an elderly aunt who never got a computer and doesn't hand-write her letters.
Now, this got me thinking about a famous situation where several careers were dramatically altered because of the difference between Courier and Times Roman: Rathergate.
You'll remember that in the run-up to the election, a memo was leaked that seemed to prove the longstanding allegations that President Bush had not only used his family privilege to get a precious--and safe--spot in the Texas National Guard, but then skipped out on his responsibilities, didn't show up for a required physical, and lost his pilot status.
Some alert bloggers in the Republican camp noticed that the memo had been done in Times Roman, and appeared to be produced on a modern word processor, and not a 70s-era typewriter. Yes, proportional-font technology existed back then--I even used a funky IBM compositor in 1975--but no sane person would use it to produce a casual memo. It was hard to wrestle with and expensive to purchase and operate, and it was designed to create finished typeset documents for publication. I saw a PDF of the memo at the time, and recognized instantly that it was a forgery. This caused the firing of several people at CBS, and advanced Dan Rather's retirement to several months earlier than planned.
The interesting side result was to deflect all the piled-up criticism about Bush's highly questionable service record. Mary Mapes got fired; Bush held on to the presidency.
The question I asked then, and continue to ask, is who really benefited from Rathergate, and who was really behind it? No one has ever really tied this scandal to either the Democrats or the Republicans--but actually, the Republicans had far more to gain. In fact, this story completed deflated the various investigations into the actual military service record--a record which, in a time of war, and a war whose purpose and justification were tangled in a web of deceit (does anyone remember that we were supposed to be preventing Saddam from using his non-existent weapons of mass destruction?), was a valid and crucial election issue. The various trails running through this sordid story are starkly relevant to the election and its outcome. For starters, it would be worth looking at how quickly people were able to trace these memos back to the same source. It wouldn't surprise me at all if we found out Karl Rove had a hand in this.
If that turns out to be true, will the mass media, cowed into submission by this and other instances, raise its collective head, remove the tail from between it legs, and call strongly for impeachment?