Politics

But His Emails

What’s with the heinous graphic design of the Trump campaign’s messages to supporters?

Screengrab of a campaign email: "Please contribute at least $5 by 11:59 PM TONIGHT to become an Official Build The Wall Member and get on the list we send the President tonight."
Screengrab/Trump campaign

Donald Trump has been formally running for re-election for about a year now, and as with all modern campaigns, the Trump team sends regular emails to its supporters, offering updates on the candidate’s work and soliciting donations. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s emails sound a lot like the man himself. “Chuck & Nancy…forgot about the Hard-Working American a long time ago,” one January message read. “Americans not only want the wall, they DEMAND THE WALL,” read another. So far, so Trumpian. What is more surprising for a well-funded major-party presidential candidate—who happens to be the president of the United States—is the graphic design aesthetic. Which is to say: absolutely hideous.

Take a missive from last week that invited supporters to sign a Valentine’s Day card for the president and first lady. The “card” itself contains just 25 words, but it includes four separate typefaces, including Courier New, the ’80s fanciness signifier Chancery, and the much-mocked Comic Sans.

Other emails aren’t just ugly, but also contain minor errors. One message “from” Melania Trump, versions of which I received at least four times, referred to the moment when the president “placed his hand on the bible and took the oath of office.” That lowercase “bible” violates both the AP Stylebook and everyday usage by the Christians in Trump’s base. The Trump team doesn’t seem to have a style guide of its own, so punctuation choices are as erratic as they are in Trump’s tweets. In other emails, “Oath of Office” is capitalized, along with phrases like “Hard-Working American,” “Liberal Mega-Donors,” and “Hollywood Elites.” Trump’s emails sometimes use the capital letter “O” in place of the number zero, such as in a recent reference to “3O,OOO American Patriots.” (As it turns out, this is an old trick to get around spam filters. But it’s still unpleasant to look at!) To use a highly technical design term, the emails are a “hot mess.”

“In the email world, sometimes there’s a difference between good design and effective design,” said Damien Shirley, a Washington-based associate director at Bully Pulpit Interactive, an agency whose clients include Democratic political campaigns. “These are conscious design choices the Trump team is making. They’re doing it because it comes across as authentic.” Shirley said the Trump messages appear to him to be designed and coded under the surface the same way any relatively sophisticated email marketing campaign would be. But the trick is that they look like they could have been thrown together by anybody you know.

Striving for a nonchalant vibe in official campaign emails is not a Trump innovation. In fact, it’s a proven strategy. The Obama campaign was famous for using cryptic, casual subject lines like “Hey” and “Me again.” During Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 Senate campaign, a single email with the subject line “I’m sorry” raised $430,000. Trump apes this approach with subject lines that have included “fw: {no entry}” and “Did you see Eric’s email?” And even Trump’s aesthetic is not totally his own. “These emails don’t look that much different from some of the messages you see from the Democratic side,” said Doug Foote, a digital strategy director at Veracity Media who has worked on digital campaigns for progressive causes. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for example, regularly sends out emails that look almost as slapdash as Trump’s.

But just because Trump’s emails belong to a creative tradition doesn’t mean they’re, you know, good. “Trump’s emails are not the worst emails I’ve ever seen, but they’re all so bad,” said Matthew Smith, founder and director of the site Really Good Emails. “I wish politicians would take this stuff more seriously.” Smith is a supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker, but when he signed up for Booker’s email list, he was also disappointed by what landed in his inbox.

Smith blames a few factors for the design gap between campaign emails and campaign branding in general, which is arguably stronger and more interesting than ever. It’s partly a technology problem. Smith pointed out that the widely used Microsoft Outlook uses relatively old and clunky technology that makes offerings like one-click donations difficult; that’s a problem for email marketing in general. Meanwhile, speed often triumphs over subtlety in campaigns that are trying to respond quickly to news events.

Still, how hard can it be to, say, choose any font other than Comic Sans when writing to supporters? That brings us back to Trump. Shirley said the Trump campaign’s haphazard design choices can’t be explained by sheer haste. “This really isn’t allowing them to send more emails or get them out the door more quickly,” he said. “It’s just how they’re choosing to talk to their supporters.” And it’s apparently working: Trump’s Make America Great Again Committee, the entity that emails his supporters updates and entreaties for donations, had raised $41 million in individual donations under $200 as of October. The problem with Trump’s emails is the problem with Trumpworld in general: No matter how terrible things look, there’s always a chance that ugliness was the plan all along.