Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Bringing a Whole New Meaning
to the Term Retail Politics

For a great overview of how Karl Rove (who began his career as a direct-mail maven) and his team teased out a win in the last presidential election, take a moment and read the February cover story of Campaigns & Elections, the bible of the political industry. The article (which unfortunately is online only for subscribers. I suggest you find it at your closest library) "The Political Bull's Eye--Persuading the Right People with Microtargeting," describes the state-of-the-art practice of what's called psychographics, or the study of segmenting people according to their lifestyles, only here as it relates to political campaigns. The article begins this way:

When you talk with the staff of TargetPoint Consulting, you can forget you're discussing politics. There's little discussion of polls, personalities or congressional scandals. The buzzwords here are 'census blocks,' 'data overlays,' 'SPSS software right out of the box.' But this is nuts and bolts politics, and an increasing number of campaigns are hearing these terms as they use something called microtargeting to win elections...Using the same statistical modeling that retail firms use to find likely customers for soda, gum or washing machines, TargetPoint consultants find correlations between voters' political ideology and their lifestyles.'

These tactics were used most decisively in Ohio, where Republican campaign operatives targeted their most likely voters in the most likely areas--the newly booming regions (like Portage County) where formerly rural areas are rapidly becoming exurbs. These practices explain why some voters in Portage reported receiving as many as 11 pieces of direct mail from the Bush campaign, as this illuminating New York Times Magazine piece reported shortly after the election, even though the Democrats didn't necessarily perceive a strong opposing campaign. The upshot: in the 21st century, it won't be the old standby tactics, like door-to-door outreaches or even costly TV commercials, that will swing close elections. The winners will be those who better adapt to politics the same strategies P&G has been using to push mouthwash.

A depressing thought, perhaps. But one with which the Democrats had better come to terms quickly. This is just one more problem caused by the Electoral College, which is increasingly pushing presidential campaigns to largely ignore wide swaths of the electorate--including dozens of states solidly in one camp or the other--as they narrow their focus to a few key battleground states, and increasingly smaller portions of those states. This was the one thing the Founding Fathers got wrong.


At 1:57 PM, Blogger Jill said...

John - I've been getting a regularly emailed newsletter from MediaPost's Behavioral Insider. It deals precisely with this kind of marketing targeting. Fascinating and scary. Here's a link to a previous newsletter:

At 2:17 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks, Jill, I'll take a close look at that and perhaps add it as a link. I think people need to understand how widely these tactics are being used, and not just in politics of course. Banks have been using this research for years to target the kind of high-value customers who might be convinced to purchase their car loan and kids' student loans from the same institution that handles their mortgage, for instance. Publishers try to capitalize on their subscription lists by figuring out what else these customers might buy. But their demonstrable effectiveness in politics is changing everything about elections as described in the civics textbooks (if indeed they ever described things faithfully). And if Democrats are slow to respond (of course, they use some of it too, just not as much or as well) they'd better prepare themselves for lots more lost elections.

At 2:36 PM, Blogger Ron Copfer said...


Why the 'scary' response? It's just the leading edge of marketing technology, of which you give ample permissions to allow.

In fact, did you know that the major source of profit for credit card companies is data profiling and not transaction fees?

Every time you purchase anything with a card, you are building upon a psychographic profile of yourself that eventually a political consultant can purchase and cross-reference to voter data.

This can tell me your preponderance on voting certain ways relative to what you've been purchasing. The only scary part is how accurate it is.

At 2:43 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Well said, Ron. That's an important additional perspective to this subject. But I share some, perhaps many, of Jill's concerns on the privacy front. It's just that it's all but too late to do much about a lot of this.

Still, I often marvel over how little people understand about this world: every time you allow the clerk at CVS or Giant Eagle to scan in your bonus/discount/whatever card, you've given your permission to let someone assemble (and use, sell or whatever) a database on your preference for toiletries and assorted sundries. That tells a story, just like a private investigator could from doing a dive through your garbage. Which is why even my wife now wants to buy a shredder for home use.

At 4:27 PM, Blogger Jill said...


Valid points.

My comment that this gathering and application of such information is scary derives from my role as a parent. One of the most difficult things, I believe, to develop in a child, for their adulthood, is discretion. The more marketers follow our habits and then try to influence and anticipate them, the more difficult I believe it becomes for an individual to discern, for themselves, the merit of any particular set of choices involved in one decision.

How do you teach your kids to trust information? What do you teach them about how to assess information they might gather in the process of making a decision?

It depresses me, Ron. It's one thing to have, available to me, information to help me with a decision. It's another thing completely to have someone else tell me what they think I should know. I do not consider that a service to anyone. I consider it manipulation, and, as a general premise, the application of manipulation is scary to me.

At 1:31 AM, Blogger Jim Kukral said...

Jill, we are all being manipulated 200 times a day or more (i forget what the number is) by marketing messages. Whether or not you find it a good or bad thing, it's a fact of life.

I say embrace the manipulation and make it work for you!

At 6:41 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

The preceding message was furnished by our sponsor, Kukral Digital Enterprises. I note that its principal, Jimmy K., was up late last night, trolling the blogs.

At 7:32 AM, Blogger Jill said...

Jim, if you write a book based on that mantra, I'd be happy to have my oldest child read it as part of his science fiction curriculum. Otherwise, I don't foresee me embracing manipulation anytime soon - except as it relates to being a better parent. :)

At 11:43 AM, Blogger Ron Copfer said...

Ah, but what if it does, Jill...

Scenario 1: by sales activities, your profile notes purchases of asthma inhalers and other products associated with this ailment.

As a marketer for a new medical products company, I put my tech hat to work to data mine certain transactional records which pops you to my list as having a preponderance to purchase these products.

Our new invention gives you complete and instantaneous relief from these complications with a patch that is 1/20th of the cost of your current meds.

As a responsible parent, am I doing you a service to send you a direct mail piece informing you of such invention and giving you a free 30 day supply to try out on your kid?

At 12:50 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You go, Ron. Thanks to my trio of scary-smart pals, Jill, Ron and Jim, this has become probably the most interesting comment thread ever on WWW (at least to me). It even spilled over just a bit onto our friend George’s uniquely omnipresent virtual coffeehouse, Brewedfreshdaily. I’m enjoying watching it unfold, and learning something in the process. What could be better?

At 2:04 PM, Blogger Jill said...

Ron - what I'm going to do, being the discerning parent that I am, is talk to other parents, talk to my pediatrician, talk to my father inlaw who is an internist, and do more research.

BUT..what about people whose profiles look just like me, but don't do that due diligence?

At 11:09 PM, Blogger Ron Copfer said...

That's forward thinking and enlightened Jill. But how many people in our culture have your testament? Answer: not many.

And in our ever increasing media blitzed world, missing this information would be considered critical to some. And yes, as a marketer I may make some mistakes in my analysis and send a message to someone who doesn’t really need it. My bad, actually my employers bad because he paid for it ;-) Anyway, if it’s not relevant, you can easily toss it (we won't allow ourselves to digress here on waste products.)

Scenario 2: I’ve recently mined some data on buying patterns for people who have bought 2008 Pria’s. My new ethanol gas station is having a hard time focusing on just those people who have newfangled fuel consumption in their cars. My data says you work downtown, live in Westlake (shudder) and just got one of these new babies. Am I dissing you to inform you of my new station around the corner, out of site on W. 3rd and Carnegie?

I’ll stop with the scenario’s now. (OK, John?)

I guess my point is that it may seem subversive on the surface—and always their will be marketers to underhandedly take advantage of technology, but in a lot of cases this will stuff just might make your life a little bit easier. You could understandably take the Luddite view that any technology that understands you better—without your permission—is bad, but I’ll stick with the challenge that a great deal of it will improve the quality of your life a lot more than it will be invading it.

At 4:28 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

No, Ron, don't stop. You've done a marvelous job of being the devil's advocate (as some might see it), or as you might instead see it, simply explaining the benefits of tools which can just as easily be used in positive ways as negative. I love your example of the ethanol gas station, in part because it slyly uses a lefty cause as a counterbalance to the average lefty's reflexive disdain for such concepts as data mining and perhaps even the whole notion of marketing. You're an effective spokesman for your industry. And you didn't even have to join the debate team to sharpen those skills. All you had to do was hit the streets for many years, selling and articulating the power of technology when used the right way.

At 8:13 AM, Blogger Ron Copfer said...


You I've grown so fond of Jill and he uncanny ability to be grounded, I'm just driven to urge her on across the line in just a few small areas, this is one. You're a good partner in helping facilitate that debate. Thanks.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That's funny that you use that word "grounded," Ron. My wife always uses that very word for people she likes whom she thinks have their heads on straight. For her, it's the highest possible praise, better than mere smart or nice or kind or anything else, because I suppose she thinks it includes all those things and so much more. I sense she's suggesting (hell, I'll just ask her tonight) that there's some hint of soulfulness thrown in too. So you've paid Jill a major compliment, at least in our house

At 11:26 AM, Blogger Jim Kukral said...

Ron is right Jill. You are the far exception, not the rule. People are dumb, for whatever reason, education, wealth, whatever. That's just a fact.

You're more like a Vulcan. I'm like that too. Except being a marketer, I see the underbelly and have come to except that everyone is manipulated, even if they don't think they are, and that's just the way it is.

Now, I could get really scary on you and tell you that I'm channeling paranoia from a movie called "They Live", but I'm not that far gone yet.

At 12:28 PM, Blogger Ron Copfer said...

That Kurkal's getting close though ;-)

And yes, John and Jill. That's exactly what the term means to me as well. I figured you had to have a wife who gets it. Why else do they put up with us?


At 12:41 PM, Blogger Jill said...

Well, lovely comments and thoughts, all. However, if grounded means in touch with ones inner craziness and neuroses, yes, that would be me. If it means, someone who has neither craziness or neuroses, umm, I'll have to disqualify myself (just take a look at my monologue on Capri Cafaro from yesterday).

That said, what I still must assert, regardless of how unique or uncanny it makes me, is that I've always gravitated toward acting on behalf of unrepresented or underrepresented people - no matter what scenario. So it's second nature for me to see, immediately, when I look at information about what marketers collect and do with what they've collected, to wonder, How is that going to affect the unsuspecting or the unable to suspect?

That's my bent, for life I suspect. So - as for myself, I'm more or less safe and mining me or people like me won't harm me. But I don't represent the kind of person I think about the most.

Thanks for indulging me. You guys are great.


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