The Marketing of a President


One of the most annoying things to me about the presidential campaign was the almost daily fundraising appeals I got from the Obama campaign (doubly annoying because I didn’t sign up for them; they only had my email address because I was required to give it to them when registering for press credentials to cover a rally in 2008). Business Week looks at those oh-so-casual emails and all the work that went in to them:

Most of the $690 million Obama raised online came from fundraising e-mails. During the campaign, Obama’s staff wouldn’t answer questions about them or the alchemy that made them so successful. Now, with the election over, they’re opening the black box.

The appeals were the product of rigorous experimentation by a large team of analysts. “We did extensive A-B testing not just on the subject lines and the amount of money we would ask people for,” says Amelia Showalter, director of digital analytics, “but on the messages themselves and even the formatting.” The campaign would test multiple drafts and subject lines—often as many as 18 variations—before picking a winner to blast out to tens of millions of subscribers. “When we saw something that really moved the dial, we would adopt it,” says Toby Fallsgraff, the campaign’s e-mail director, who oversaw a staff of 20 writers.

It quickly became clear that a casual tone was usually most effective. “The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people,” Fallsgraff says. “ ‘Hey’ was probably the best one we had over the duration.” Another blockbuster in June simply read, “I will be outspent.” According to testing data shared with Bloomberg Businessweek, that outperformed 17 other variants and raised more than $2.6 million.

What we’re seeing is how the tools of marketing are being used in politics. A campaign is little more than a sophisticated advertising campaign now, with test audiences and psychological studies designed to push just the right emotional buttons. Unlike Bill Hicks, I don’t think advertising is inherently evil. There’s nothing manipulative or dishonest, for instance, when a company takes out an ad saying “Hey, we’re running a special this week on this product.”

But this is marketing at its most deceptive and dangerous, I think. It’s the same techniques used to convince men that drinking Dr. Pepper makes them manly while drinking Mt. Dew makes them “extreme” and, thus, even more manly. And to convince women that if only they wore the right jeans or had the right makeup, they’d look just like a supermodel and men would desire them. This is taking advantage of human insecurities for profit, or in this case, for political gain.

And no, I’m not singling out Obama. I wasn’t on Romney’s email list, but I’m sure they were doing the same things. And the Republican marketing plan is even worse in terms of demagoguery, always seeking to make people afraid of the Other — gays, Muslims, immigrants, whatever it takes.

Comments

  1. says

    This is merely a logical development of the activities documented in The Selling of the President, in which Joe McGinnis reported on the way that Richard Nixon was marketed like a commercial product during the election of 1968.

    I’m just glad that Obama’s people were better at it this year than Romney’s.

  2. jamessweet says

    I was on the Obama mailing list after I bought a campaign sign in ’08. I admit that the e-mails that showed up in my inbox this election were strangely compelling, and that’s to somebody who is completely jaded by any sort of internet advertising. They really did their homework, it seems.

  3. Michael Heath says

    I perceive this new effort as a good feature albeit an annoying one. Politicians have to win to govern so of course they’re going to eventually evolve to using the most optimal marketing methods available to compete. And I’d much rather get buried in marketing material attempting to get individuals like me to contribute their money, voice, and time than have a few opaque organizations controlling the finances and operations which support politicians to the point they’re dependent on serving the relative handful.

  4. says

    I wonder if this isn’t a good thing: using research and then acting on it. I believe that they were better at it that Romney’s lot.

    Indeed I’ve received a couple of emails, from apparently the same people, asking my opinion since the election.
    Of course I have no way of knowing if this is any more than a ‘let’s keep the suckers on the hook’ sort of thing, but if by some remote chance it actually isn’t, and the Administration amazingly do want to know what someone other than lobbyists want, that’d be good.
    But I’m probably in a pre-coffee delusional state

  5. says

    The marketing of a person who is running for president, in his bespoke suit, Robert Matthews shoes*, $300 razor cut, niceyoungvietnamesegirlwithasurgicalmaskon manicure, etc., is bad enough. When, as in the case of Mittmoroni, the suit is empty, well, wtf do you expect?

    “Of course I have no way of knowing if this is any more than a ‘let’s keep the suckers on the hook’ sort of thing,”

    Look at the letterhead. If it says something like:

    “The Formerly Voiceless But Not Anymore Grassrootists of the USA!USA!!USYAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY–offices in all major U.S. cities.”…

    * http://www.customshoemaker.com/mens.html I like the “Cambridge” at $ 895.00–no, I really do, the guy makes great shoes or did the last time I saw him at a gift show in Newburyport, MA a few years back.

  6. Enkidum says

    I don’t see this as particularly cynical or even in bad taste. It’s a matter of success, and the team that does it better will likely win the election. What are they supposed to do, pretend that elections are won by a careful and thorough discussion of the issues?

  7. Moggie says

    If I received mail with a subject of just “hey”, it’d go straight in my spam folder unread.

  8. sivivolk says

    There was an article, I think in The Atlantic, about how Romney wasn’t in fact doing the same, that the Democrats have heavily embraced research-based campaign methods, whereas the Republicans are often still working on gut-based methods. This is attributed to researchers being better inclined towards Dems.

    I’ve looked around for the article but am having some trouble finding it.

  9. Johnny Vector says

    My favorites were the ones from Al Franken, who was constantly breaking the fourth wall. He almost always refers to the obligatory “extra ask” postscript after his signature as the extra ask. I’m sure it’s tested too, but I don’t mind getting a “you guys are smart enough to know how this stuff works, but I’m doing it anyway” message.

    Not that I would have donated based solely on the emails; it was clear to me from his time on Air America that he is really smart, not just funny. But it certainly can be that push that makes you pull out your credit card.

  10. wscott says

    And I’d much rather get buried in marketing material attempting to get individuals like me to contribute their money, voice, and time than have a few opaque organizations controlling the finances and operations which support politicians to the point they’re dependent on serving the relative handful.

    Exactly. The fact that the Obama team found a way to effectively tap into individual average voters for funding, rather than relying on a handful of rich donors and corporations, is one of the few positive signs in modern campaign financing. Those like Dennis @2, I’d still prefer public financing.

    There was an article, I think in The Atlantic, about how Romney wasn’t in fact doing the same, that the Democrats have heavily embraced research-based campaign methods, whereas the Republicans are often still working on gut-based methods.

    I didn’t get Romney email, but as an Independent in a swing state I got a TON of Romney mailings. They were exactly what you’d expect from his TV ads – red meat for the base and “truthy” claims for the ignorant. (As an Obama voter, I may be biased.) I certainly wouldn’t describe any of them as striking a “casual” tone, but then I’m not sure Romney could make that seem authentic even if he’d wanted to.

  11. says

    The tools have changed, but the marketing is nothing new. Campaigns have been more about packaging that the message ever since the dawn of television.

    I admit, though, even as an Obama supporter I found the relentless appeals for money annoying. Still, raising ten bucks each from millions of voters beats the republican alternative of being backed by a handful of crazy billionaires.

  12. jaxkayaker says

    Marketing isn’t completely evil, but it’s close. Oh, and Bill Hicks is the closest thing we have to a god.

  13. says

    d.c.wilson:

    Campaigns have been more about packaging that the message ever since the dawn of television.

    I dare say that electoral campaign as packaging over content pre-dates television.

  14. robb says

    you mean other people got those emails from Franken and Obama too? i thought they were written personally to me.

  15. lofgren says

    It’s not clear to me how the messages were deceptive, dangerous, or predating on insecurities. The relationship between an email that says “Hey, I could use some more money” and a beer ad that guarantees hot chicks with no personality will have casual sex with you based on your consumer habits is also lost on me.

    I guess I just don’t see anything insidious about this at all.

  16. says

    “The relationship between an email that says “Hey, I could use some more money” and a beer ad that guarantees hot chicks with no personality will have casual sex with you based on your consumer habits is also lost on me.”

    JESUS, I hope no GOPoperatives read that! I can see it now:

    “Vote for me, GET LAID!”

    Otoh, I can imagine a sort of folksy, “real people” ad from the Mittmoroni camp.

    “Hi, people say that Mitt Romney treats poor people with contempt. Well, as one of his serfs, I’m here to tell you, that’s a lie.”.

  17. lofgren says

    JESUS, I hope no GOPoperatives read that! I can see it now:

    “Vote for me, GET LAID!”

    Well obviously I CAN see the relationship between that kind of ad and a beer ad.

    But reading the email posted with the article, I don’t see it as dangerously manipulative in any way. It effects a familiar tone, but it makes no hidden promises and contains no hidden costs. It’s very straightforward. It makes a simple requests and offers a tangible reward, and it’s honest about your chances of being selected for that reward. The factual statements made in the email are verifiable and verified.

    If you really don’t see a difference between “My campaign needs some more money, and if you send it we’ll enter you for a chance to have dinner with the president,” and “Vote for me and GET LAID,” then we are obviously not going to see eye to eye on this. To me they seem worlds apart.

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