Fake “RE” in campaign e-mails deceives voters, creates poor impression

April 16th, 2012
Filed under: Social Media — joel @ 9:17 am

Both the Obama campaign and Republican campaigns have been relying heavily on e-mail marketing to get through to voters. And in some cases, accusations have been made that sleazy techniques are being used on both sides of the aisle.

A February post by Loren McDonald of Silverpop, an e-mail marketing company based in Atlanta, Georgia, points out that the Republicans have employed a number of “questionable (e-mail marketing) gimmicks” designed to “make the email stand out in the inbox or imply that the message is coming from a friend. These include (the use of) re: and Fw: or Fwd:, to grab the recipient’s attention.”

The use of e-mail with fake “REs” in the subject line has long been a staple of spammers, and is designed to create the impression of an e-mail response, simulating a relationship and ongoing communications with the recipient. It is surprising to see it in a presidential campaign.

People have seen everything, and they’re tired of being manipulated. They know a con. This scam has been around a long time, and legitimate marketers, particularly if they represent a presidential candidate, should know better. In any context, this technique is insincere and manipulative. It’s a strategy that will backfire with most consumers and most voters.

In commercial use, simulated email responses with “RE” in them are probably in violation of Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rules. The FTC announced ten years ago that it was waging war against e-mail spammers, and filed suit against perpetrators of an e-mail chain letter scheme.

A 2003 FTC report specifically defines false subject lines, including those with “RE,” as “deceptive,” and therefore potential violations of FTC regulations.

As Martin Chorich comments, political speech is not subject to the same oversight and restrictions as commercial speech, so the FTC rules do not apply, but clearly this kind of email deception is something that regulators have identified as harmful to consumers, and is equally harmful to voters.

Consumers can file a complaint about any deceptive email practice, by simply forwarding the email to, or by completing a complaint form on the agency’s site.

The Republicans are not alone in this. The Obama campaign came under attack recently for what some see as a sleazy e-mail campaign.  Earlier this month, Jon Stewart remarked that the e-mails from the Obama campaign were akin to a Nigerian 419 scam letter.

Note: This post has been edited to indicate political speech is not governed by FTC regulations, in respone to Martin Chorich’s helpful comment below.

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  1. Unfortunately, you are dealing with the big difference between commercial speech and political speech. Commercial speech is subject to a fair amount of regulation, while almost anything goes with the techniques and messages of political speech. That and the cure you propose may be worse than the disease. Do we really want the Federal Trade Commission–a body appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate–to censor political speech, however maladroitly and obnoxiously transmitted?

    Comment by Martin Chorich — April 16, 2012 @ 9:59 am

  2. Follow up comment: The lesson here is that under Federal law, deceiving consumers is a crime, deceiving voters is a sport.

    Comment by Martin Chorich — April 20, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

  3. That’s just ridiculous! Using a tactic just screams that they think everyone is an idiot. Why do marketers think this is okay? What goes on inside a meeting where such a decision is made. Do these people have mothers?

    Comment by Frank Strong — April 25, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

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