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.