The Magazine

Bill Collector in Chief

Oct 29, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 07 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Over the last few years The Scrapbook has watched the rise of the behavioral social sciences with a profound sense of unease. It’s best to be alert to the limits of social science for many reasons, but chief among them is that any supposed insights into human behavior are rapidly seized upon by professionals who manipulate people for a living. 

For a particularly disturbing example of this, look no further than the increasingly Orwellian marketing tactics of the Obama campaign. Earlier this year, Obama for America released a smartphone app that produces maps telling you the political affiliation of your neighbors. The Scrapbook also recently received this email from the Obama campaign:

According to our records associated with this email address -- hopefully it’s yours if you’re reading this! -- here’s your online giving history for this organization:

-- Your supporter ID number is: 1009733799

-- Your most recent online donation was: $0

-- Total amount donated online in 2012: $0

It looks like you haven’t made an online donation to the campaign yet. If you were waiting for the last minute, you’re pretty much there.

The knowledge that the Obama campaign is tracking us with a 10-digit supporter ID number was a bit disturbing, as was the general tone of the email. (We guess the number goes up to 10 digits because the Obama campaign assumes that admirers of our humble leader number in the billions.) Thankfully, we’re not the only ones who felt that way. 

One prominent regulatory lawyer told Politico that if a major financial services company sent out a similarly manipulative letter, they would run afoul of the Federal Trade Commission. And no less than Scott Goodstein, the external online director for Obama’s 2008 campaign, said, “While squeaking out a little more cash, is it worth it if it turns off base supporters that are reading your narrative and doing the hard work?” He went on to describe the fundraising appeal as “a ‘collection-style’ bill from the campaign’s auditor.”

If Goodstein finds this unseemly, perhaps that’s because he’s not taking into account that the Obama campaign posing as a bill collector is less unusual than it would have been when Goodstein handled fundraising during the ’08 campaign. Thanks to the president’s stewardship of the economy, Americans have grown much more accustomed to hearing from bill collectors. Still, the symbolism of this missive is something to behold. Obama rings up $5 trillion in new debt and wants to raise taxes, but he acts like you’re in arrears with his campaign.

Unfortunately, it appears that such sleazy attempts to manipulate supporters are here to stay. If you thought posing as a bill collector to juice campaign cash was scraping the barrel, it gets worse. The New York Times recently reported that political campaigns are closely tracking your every move:

In the weeks before Election Day, millions of voters will hear from callers with surprisingly detailed knowledge of their lives. These callers—friends of friends or long-lost work colleagues—will identify themselves as volunteers for the campaigns or independent political groups.

The callers will be guided by scripts and call lists compiled by people—or computers—with access to details like whether voters may have visited pornography Web sites, have homes in foreclosure, are more prone to drink Michelob Ultra than Corona or have gay friends or enjoy expensive vacations.

So next time you hear from a campaign, just go ahead and write the check already. It’s only a matter of time before they make the logical jump from crass manipulation to blackmail.

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