The Obama Watch

Choking on Obamaspam

Yet one more way he's polluting our politics.

By 10.3.11

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I have no idea how Barack Obama got my email address but a few weeks ago there it was in my inbox -- a message from the President. I decided to break my lifelong rule of zapping all emails from strangers and so, out of curiosity, I opened it up. I got a lot more than an email.

Under the spell of the wizard in the White House, I then clicked on "I'm in," opening a floodgate of junk email that now seems unstoppable. A new message from the fundraising team arrives almost daily, sometimes twice a day.

After a few weeks of reading these solicitations, I have to conclude that Obamaspam is indiscriminate in its distribution and offensive in its false bonhomie, its tricky come-ons, its crackerbarrel language ("folks" and "pitch in" recur annoyingly) and its presumption of friendship.

I don't like being addressed as "Friend'" by people I have never met. I even got one from his wife, signed simply "Michelle." Fortunately, my wife never saw that one. It was pretty chummy.

The most frequent messages are the ones that insult my intelligence. The series began with the subject line "Sometime soon can we meet for dinner?" Click on that and you get a real downer. You are invited to be among almost a million or so people who are gambling that they will be one of the lucky four selected for his next face-to-face feed with his "Friends." But if you want to play -- another downer -- you have to pay. The next click tells you to contribute money if you want to be in the draw.

A friend who knows something about direct mail says a surprising number of very sad people will choose to believe -- against all logic -- that they have a chance to win such games, and so they will contribute and sit by their computer and hope.

In another twist, the distribution list is now being used for non-funding objectives. Last week I was instructed to call John Boehner and demand action on the Jobs Act. The email included Boehner's phone number and a suggested script to read into the answering machine. It would be hard to imagine a more futile activity than such nuisance calls.

Off-putting as Obamaspam seems, it cannot be blamed entirely on Obama. The copywriting obviously has nothing to do with the President, his wife, or his various minions who lend their names to such chaff. This is the work of paid professionals who know something about loosening up purse strings. The practice has multiplied since email distribution made it so cheap. No paper, no postage. Just press send.

The campaign also clashes with the President's pose as Mr. Everyman, just workin' hard to help folks live better. Come on, just pitch in and help out. Grassroots, that's his secret. Well, except for Wall Street donors who incidentally are switching by the hundreds to Mitt Romney, a turnaround specialist and a friendlier face for financial industry regulation.

If he depends on grassroots too much, he may want to think again. Average donations compared to his 2008 records are down, and the number of new donors is too small to compensate. His begging letters until a few weeks ago asked for a modest minimum of $5. That wasn't working. Now he is asking for a minimum of $3. Where is this headed, one wonders.

With a whiff of desperation, the tone has moved from chatty and folksy to hectoring.

Friday of last week I got a shortie from him saying the cutoff for contributing to his third-quarter intake of campaign funds was looming. "The deadline's midnight, so don't sit on this one." Wow.

One of the most inappropriate messages I received was an unashamed invasion of my privacy. His team had used a computer snooping technique to find that Brookline Mass was the city I was writing from, although I don't actually live there. The message was calculated to trigger a surge of guilt with a tinge of envy. Records showed that 731 people in Brookline had donated to his cause. "You aren't one of the 731," it said ominously. I hope he didn't tell the 731 where I can be found. I felt guilty, envious, and also a little bit afraid.

A marketing guru in San Francisco, David Garfinkel, expresses no surprise at the dog whistles embedded in these emails. "The Seven Capital Sins are the copywriter's best friends," he told me -- especially pride, envy, greed and sloth.

I asked Garfinkel why Obamaspam was rubbing me the wrong way. He said the writers know what they're doing; I am just on the wrong wavelength. For a true believer, he said, "it will ring your chimes and light up your day. Endorphins and dopamines will flow from you brain to your body as your dollars flow out."

If I have reservations about the source, however, "cortisol, adrenaline, and all the biochemistry of anger and disgust will well up in your system. You'll have just as emotional a reaction as the believer, but on the negative side of the spectrum."

Even the clubby button "I'm in" was probably chosen with good reason, he adds. "One of the most fundamental primordial instincts we have is to find a group we want to be a part of, and do all we can to get into it."

As for the overly familiar vernacular that seems to come from a semi-literate source, it doesn't. "This is affirmation language, a direct mail technique of speaking in the voice of the recipient," says Garfinkel.

Campaign manager Jim Messina boasts that in October he expects to see his list of small-denomination donors reach one million, and exhorted me to "be in the first million." I don't think so, Jimmy. I'm very afraid.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.