Forbes has been running excerpts from the new book “Falwell Inc.: Inside a Religious, Political, Educational and Business Empire” by Dirk Smillie. The most recent excerpt recounts Falwell’s pioneering work in the field of direct mail and how he used wedge issues to raise millions of dollars:
Falwell had the formidable talent of Jerry Huntsinger. Then 45, he was a former minister who lived on a farm near Richmond who had been taking advertising concepts from the for-profit world and applying them to nonprofit religious ventures. Huntsinger brought a novelist’s touch to direct mail. He considered every fundraising letter a first cousin to the short story. “A short story has a problem that seems insurmountable, a sympathetic character that is a victim of the problem, complications and obstacles, but finally, a resolution.” He advised his clients that emergency appeals work best because they give donors a feeling of “excitement at coming to the rescue.”
Huntsinger was also a master at fine tuning the mechanics: the color of the envelope, the position of the address window, which paragraphs to indent, which sentences to underline. He knew how to lure a reader’s eye just to where he wanted.
Huntsinger encouraged Falwell to focus on wedge issues in his mailings, excoriating the feminist movement and attacking homosexual rights, often equating both with the dangers of communism. As one letter stated: “Dear Friend: Homosexuals are on the march in this country. Homosexuals do not reproduce, they recruit, and many of them are after my children and your children….This is one major reason why we must keep “The Old Time Gospel Hour” alive…So don’t delay. Let me hear from you immediately. I will be anxiously awaiting your reply.”
The sense of impending doom the letter conveyed fit perfectly with Huntsinger’s operating credo. It turned a pitch into a storyline (gays on the the march) with sympathetic characters (children) under threat from sex offenders (gay pedophiles). It was an emergency appeal that sought to panic his audience into coming to the rescue.