Saturday, December 1, 2012

Profanity as Campaign Strategy

    At least twice during the presidential campaign I commented on a trend I noticed in Obama campaign emails, tweets and blog posts.  In June, I noted that the Obama campaign store began selling a t-shirt with a vulgarity first overheard on an open mic from Joe Biden after Obamacare was signed into law.  I soon found other examples of the campaign using profanity and updated the post.  After a serendipitous conversation with Jake Tapper on Twitter, he played off my post and did a story of his own on his ABC News blog.  (The serendipity came crashing down when his link to my post was broken and never fixed... C'est la guerre...)  In August, I wrote a second post after I noticed yet another example of the genre.

    In my original June post, I speculated that the bad language "is part of a new strategy."  A recent article at Business Week analyzing the science behind the Obama campaign's prolific email stream confirms my suspicions.
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... Another unexpected hit: profanity. Dropping in mild curse words such as “[Expletive deleted] yeah, I like Obamacare” got big clicks. But these triumphs were fleeting. There was no such thing as the perfect e-mail; every breakthrough had a shelf life. “Eventually the novelty wore off, and we had to go back and retest,” says Showalter.
    The satisfaction of having confirmation that I correctly pegged this disturbing trend as a conscious strategy is tempered by the disheartening news that it apparently worked.  One wonders if this says more about the team that chose to implement that strategy or the Obama supporters who enthusiastically responded.  And since the Business Week story noted that "eventually the novelty wore off," one shudders to think how the still busy Obama social media team will up the ante over the next four years. We may have one more reason to be thankful for the 22nd Amendment.

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