The Really Big Question of The 2010 Election: Do Robo Calls Really Work?

We appreciate all of the questions we get from our clients and contacts, even the questions we are not quite qualified to answer. The Election Season, we have been asked multiple times “Do those annoying ‘robo calls’ really work?”

Since Tanner Friedman does not handle direct political campaign work, my guess has always been that if those automated calls to your home phone number were not considered effective, then campaigns probably would not spend the money to do them. But, we’re talking about politics here, where conventional wisdom doesn’t necessarily carry the day. So, we asked respected political analyst and public policy expert, Craig Ruff of Public Sector Consultants in Lansing, Michigan. Here’s a special Tanner Friedman Blog “Q&A” with Craig Ruff…

Q. I get a lot of questions about why they political campaigns are allowed to call people on the “Do Not Call” list. It’s because the politicians exempted themselves from the law, right?

A. As with so many other laws, politicians exempted themselves and political committees from making calls to households. Many of us view it as phone spam, but it is legal.

Q. Business marketers would be loathe to irk a customer before ever having the chance to communicate a message. Why do political campaigns seem to not care about that?

A. Great point. Political groups use robo calling because they intuit or, more likely, their research shows that it works. Most people whom I know resent the calls, but they similarly disdain negative advertising on TV and radio. I know that the latter works in most circumstances. There’s no evidence that robo calls actually cause people receiving them to vote against the sponsor. Business and charities have not borrowed the practice from politicians, at least not yet.

Q. We do cost-benefit analyses all the time. I assume campaigns do the same thing. Do they really think the calls sway voters and it’s worth the money?

A. As mentioned earlier, I’d be willing to bet that research shows that robo calling works. Because of their immediacy, they likely serve as a prompt to the busy voter to remember to vote for or against someone or something, rather like impulse buying at the grocery store.

Q. Is the simple answer there that they think it gets an unfiltered message into the home?

A. It’s certainly true that it is unfiltered and guaranteed to arrive “just in time.” The vast majority of robo calls at our home come in the last few days of a campaign. That suggests to me that they are designed, in big part, to remind me to vote and suggest how to vote.

Q. What do you say to voters who say they’ll “never” vote for the candidate that inundates them with robo calls?

A. Although it costs the consumer time and effort, people who are so taken aback that they would vote against the sponsor of the robo call, the best method of diminishing its use would be to get a phone number for sponsors, call them, and tell them that the phone spam caused me to vote against them. If enough people did that, I suspect that we would reduce their use.

Q. Any other perspective that would be helpful for people (especially the professional communicators who read the TF Blog) to “get” this?

A. I’d caution other messengers to be very careful before adopting every political tactic. For starters, you’d violate “Do Not Call.” But, too, an angered consumer may stop buying your product forever, not just in a single election.