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Published on August 19th, 2009 | by Janine Popick

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Was the White House Spamming?

You may have heard the brouhaha about the Obama administration sending an email marketing campaign out to millions of recipients last week regarding the health care reform. During a press conference Fox News reporter Major Garret asked why the White House is sending unsolicited email to people who have not opted-in to receive email from the administration. Apparently he got one of these emails with the subject line reading “Something Worth Forwarding”.

Funny enough, I’m on this list, and I didn’t get this email. I’m on all candidate lists so I could monitor what they were doing during the election. However, this particular email came from “David Axelrod” who is one of the President’s advisers. I have received emails from him in the past, so it’s strange that I didn’t get this one.

FoxNews

So as it turns out, the White House responded that they are going to redo their email rules and only send email to people who request it. An Obama spokesperson said:

“We are implementing measures to make subscribing to e-mails clearer, including preventing advocacy organizations from signing people up to our lists without their permission when they deliver petition signatures and other messages on individual’s behalf.”

So are they suggesting that people are being signed up without their permission? It looks like it. According to the White House this list has been mailed to before but maybe not about this subject. Was it the content that got people angered? Who knows, but in any event I think the White House made a series of mistakes during this entire process.

Who is David Axelrod Anyway?

In my opinion their first mistake was to send an email with such highly volatile content and have it NOT come from the President himself. Yes, I know he’s Barack’s Senior Adviser, but he’s not Barack.  I signed up to get emails from Barack Obama not David. Had I received the email from Obama, there is a good chance I would have opened it. I don’t know why the administration uses other names.

Why Is It So Difficult to Send Email to Those Who Want It?

The second mistake is that the White House should keep track of who they can send email to and who they shouldn’t. It’s a pretty easy task to do. Then they don’t risk upsetting their constituents and they won’t have a PR nightmare (like it has become.)

Why the Deceptive Subject Line?

According to CAN-SPAM, the subject line should relate to the content of the email. The subject line “Something Worth Forwarding” crosses the line and does not really describe the email content.

Politicians Get a Free Pass in CAN-SPAM

Since CAN-SPAM regulates “commercial email”, politicians kind of have a free pass when it comes to email marketing. Under the CAN-SPAM law they can pretty much send to the lists of people that sign up as well as lists of people that don’t. Should they? In my opinion, no. They should be sending email to those who want it. It’s better for their “brand”.

Make sure you’re looking at who is on your list and who you’re sending email to. If you don’t do it correctly (as the White House proved) you could damage your brand that you work so hard to maintain.

What are your thoughts on this?

© 2009 – 2013, Janine Popick. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

is a contributing author for VerticalResponse.



32 Responses to Was the White House Spamming?

  1. bussiness says:

    Thats an all around well thought out piece..

  2. Tom says:

    If the Bush administration had done the same thing this administration is doing, the media would be screaming foul. Double standards are par for the course these days, it is too bad really. Rules and guidelines should apply equally to everyone.

  3. Laurina says:

    Thanks for this post!
    At UniversalGiving, we are careful not to spam. We make sure that everyone whom we email to are subscribers to our newsletters. Afterall, receiving emails you didn’t sign up to receive, can get annoying!
    Thanks for the tips :)
    Best,
    Laurina Wong
    lwong@universalgiving.org
    http://www.universalgiving.org

  4. Mary Ann Farley says:

    At worst, the White House made a bad PR move, plain and simple. The faux pax was nowhere near what Bush did to this country, day in and day out. Where were all these patriots who are now so fearful of “tyranny” when Bush was at the helm?
    I’m utterly shocked at the undeserved venom being spewed at our President, considering the complete mess he inherited.
    I just don’t get all this “mistrust,” either. I fully suspect that was there in his critics long before he took office.
    If we’re going to vilify him over spam, fer chrissakes, what next? Fox outrage at a poor fashion choice? I, too, am weary of this constant criticism over NOTHING.

  5. Angry American says:

    Spam is spam and this is a great example of it. If I blasted out millions of emails concerning abortion, religion, or gun control I’d have the FCC sniffing me out and setting me up with huge fines, even if there was no possibility of commercial or monetary game. The database of emails they now have needs to be confiscated and destroyed. PERIOD.

  6. warren says:

    I guess it is time for Obama and team to get a VR account. If they had it none of this would have happened. Thank you VR for keeping me legal and ethical

  7. Cheri says:

    I received David Axelrod’s 8-page plea to support Obamacare just after having sent a brief message to flag@whitehouse.gov (where you were asked to report sources of “fishy” info about Obamacare)to remind the White House that Americans have a right to speak their minds, especially on issues as critical as health care. As a result, I’m now on the White House mailing list. There was no opt-out provision in Axelrod’s message, a violation of CANSPAM. The White House has just built a priceless new database of valid email addresses, which it said it would not do, and is now marketing to that database. This is wrong.

  8. Lior Leser says:

    I like your post. As an Internet Lawyer I appreciate the analysis on whether the mail was or was not spam. Keep it up

  9. JD Mensing says:

    Excellent post. It helps illustrate that many organizations that should know better (regarding permission-based email) still do not.
    I also received this email at multiple accounts that had never opted to receive any political messages.
    Your post also helps illustrate another, more concerning, fact… our politicians are enacting laws from which they are exempt.
    A short list:
    CAN-SPAM, the FTC’s DoNotCall, Social Security, and coming soon, government mandated health insurance.
    Why do we allow our representatives to enact rules for us which they are not required to follow? Reminds me a something a wise man once wrote, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

  10. Travis Cable says:

    Obama and his kin are not businessmen. They have no business experience and they are proving it. They operate outside the rules and with seemingly endless amounts of money that they don’t worry about.
    We need leaders with real business success to be running our country.

  11. Gordon says:

    It is always disappointing when the government holds itself to different standards than then hold us to. This examples is a classic.
    Thanks for pointing it out.

  12. Very interesting article. Vertical Response continues to impress me every day. I love how your blog delivers interesting content that also incorporates tips for our own marketing campaigns. Kudos to Vertical Response! We have been very happy with your product, customer service and engaging social media presence!
    -Margaret, Lightner Property Group

  13. Alan Cooke says:

    Spam is spam. This should be investigated – the government should not be above the law.

  14. Mark Z says:

    As you will notice more frequently, this administration has no intention of following the rules the rest of us mortals must follow.
    As P.T. Barnum may or may not have said
    “You can fool all of the people some of the time”, which is exactly what happened to the those who voted for this president.

  15. scott b says:

    I’ve always wondered what is the model for describing spam. Are spam and junk mail the same thing? Where is that magic line that makes email so special, yet you can barely control what comes in your street mailbox? (Or for that matter, what is advertised to you on TV or the Radio.)
    I get a lot of unsolicited email. I often find it extremely helpful. I would not have found out there was a good Photoshop alternative for my son that is only $50, without an unsolicited email from a legitimate company.
    I also get 1-4 unsolicited emails everyday for “better & cheaper” health insurance from a variety of second-rate companies. I’ve even tried to opt out of a few, but they keep coming. I haven’t heard many talking-heads, senators or congressmen complaining about this.
    Yet I would agree that regulation is needed to prevent fraudulent/deceptive email marketing claims and inappropriate content. Ironically, the companies and people who engage in sending questionable content are very successful at penetrating security, thus making legitimate marketing efforts more difficult.
    Personally I think the Obama email is just an event that has been politicized for partisan gain, though I agree it should have come from the President, not David Axelrod.

  16. Vince says:

    Email *marketing* is inherently a one-way message by its very nature, and I think any email marketing campaign is bound to upset or annoy a few people. In this situation, those frustrations were just center stage. I have certainly seen companies do far worse than what was done here.

  17. K O'Malley says:

    I think any e-mail coming out of the White House going to the public should go to everyone; whether they are on their list or not; party and who is president should not matter–the up and coming pandemic virus offers a sound reason why.
    Should Obama’s name be on every e-mail, h… no. I want to know who to contact if I have questions. Nor do I want his name over used that I do not pay attention… the old boy calling wolf…
    Just my thoughts, and for those getting an unsolicited e-mail from the White House, they should consider it a privilege that someone cares that they are included in knowing what is going on, they can always unsubscribe.
    I am not into partisan politics based on hostilities. I want to hear from my president–the most annoying thing about George W was how rarely we heard from him.

  18. Sue in Texas says:

    I have a small business that regularly sends emails to my email list. To make sure I am in compliance with CAN-SPAM regulations, I subscribe to an email service that requires me to meet legal requirements, including making sure the recipients either signed up for my list or have a business relationship with me, I am not purchasing lists of email addresses, etc.
    I am among the millions who received this email from the White House, and my immediate reaction was to wonder how on earth they got my email address because I know with certainty that I never subscribed to anything from the White House.
    I see no reason for the White House to be circumventing the specifics of this law, which most of us are managing to comply with. The law is the law, spam is spam, and yes, I consider what the White House did to be spamming. It was poorly thought-out, and apparently the people handling their emails are uninformed on the laws regarding email. Shame on them.

  19. SWH says:

    Just another example of politicians writing laws that benefit them and not their constituents. It’s hard enough to get clients to accept what they can and can’t do as it relates to CAN-SPAM. At least the Whitehouse didn’t get a total pass, otherwise it would have blurred the line even more for a lot of small businesses who are just trying to make a living.

  20. pogo says:

    Not spam technically. They were not selling a product such as viagra, etc. Technically it was a Chain Letter which is automatically illegal, not just US POst, but electronically because it mobs servers.
    What they should have done was sent around the curious “poll” questionnaire from the Far Right which was extremely slanted wording.

  21. Joseph Moore says:

    Yes they were, but by the letter of the law, they are exempt fro their own laws. time to just move on!

  22. megan hicks says:

    I think this was an honest mistake and the media — well Fox News, at least — is creating yet another tempest in a teapot.
    The double standard is glaring between the Bush administration’s atrocities what were tolerated — even applauded! — and the Obama administration.
    Either go back and start holding the Bush White House’s feet to the fire, too, or get over it.

  23. Christi Griffin says:

    I’m tired of the criticism of virtually every and anything that PRESIDENT Obama does, including killing a germ infested fly during a press conference. (I don’t ever recall any reputable organization disrespecting the office of the President of the United States by referring to President Bush as George, or President Nixon as Ronald!) This country would be in a much better place if it’s citizens would actually make efforts to help the president rebuild a country handed to him in a deplorable economic and moral condition rather than spend time constantly finding something to criticize.
    Had President Obama sent the email himself, he would have been crticized for not delegating the task to a senior official. In the eyes of those who have nothing more to offer but criticism, President Obama can’t win for losing – and, therefore, neither can we.
    Christi Griffin

  24. Richard Beserra says:

    Interesting position, but I disagree both on the alleged facts and second on the ultimate outcome.
    Major Garrett is well known advocate of the “right” that is labeled as Fox “News”. It is a jump to believe that they are not on the White House e-mail list. I would assume that any reporter and any opposition spokes person would be on such a list. So the initial premises is inaccurate at best.
    Second, the reason the law allows for “spam” and other methods to hand out “political” materials is because of that little clause in our Constitution/Bill of Rights called the First Amendment. Our freedom of speech in this country is an awesome right and we want to encourage all political discourse.
    In a commercial context spamming is illegal and wrong and does affect the branding of your commercial service or product, but not necessarily your political point of view.
    As a political person I would be wishing to reach not only those that support my view, but also others that I might convince to my political persuasion.
    The politics of Obama speaking and/or Axelrod is different and the strength of the message might be stronger with the President, but he may be overused so you won’t open the e-mail after a while and he may want the “wiggle” room after the message is received.
    Thanks for the opportunity to provide my view on this very important subject.

  25. CJ says:

    The rules of email marketing are just good common sense and based on what works. I don’t understand why the white house representatives feel they have an inherent right to break protocols simply because they feel their cause is important.

  26. sb says:

    The White House email was spam.
    Just more of the same from this administration’s walking all over citizens in this country….and disregard for their privacy, Constitutional rights, etc.
    “Do as we say, not as we do” = tyranny.

  27. Melodi Oswald says:

    I agree with you regarding making sure who is on your list.
    I get emails from the White House and I did receive the “something worth forwarding email” as well. I did not sign up for the email list nor have I signed up for anything or participated in petitions from advocacy groups. I DID email the white house protesting the bail outs. I think the true is that the White House collects the email addresses from incoming correspondence for future solicitations.
    I am also getting emails from Blog Talk Radio and other places advertising Obama speaking. I have not signed up for Blog Talk Radio or ever even listened to it so I am pretty sure the White House is sharing email addresses with other organizations for the purpose of promoting the president’s policies.
    As you can see, I am highly suspect of the White House and their attempts to blame other organizations. I do not trust them and I do not believe they have any interest in keeping my information confidential. For this reason alone, I think maintaining a list of people who want to be contacted only is important. I do not want our customers to feel suspicious of our motives nor do I want them to doubt the security of the information they have shared with us.

  28. Evan says:

    My thoughts are that I’m not impressed at all by this administration’s “do as I say, not as I do” approach to governance.

  29. sandy nelson says:

    Of course the White House was spamming! It’s just another in a series of abuses from this administration. With a sycophant like Axelrod..no surprise!

  30. Mike Tucker says:

    I believe that we have found the thin gray line between a “commercial entity” and a politician. The difference is that when dealing with a commercial entity at least I know when a salesman is trying to con me, and I expect to walk away feeling like I need to wash the slime off my hand…

  31. clear voice says:

    If you go by the can-spam act, yes they did. Then again, Washington always sticks a thumb in the eyes of Americans. This administration has 10 thumbs. Robert Gibb’s looked like a lost boy when asked the question.
    The question or rule of law is that the administration is suppose to keep e-mails sent this high up..
    I believe that’s has some concerned.
    I don’t know the exact law but did read some snippets of it.
    Washing will always do what they want at our expense. Maybe we should all spam the White House!!!

  32. I have received emails from him in the past, so it’s strange that I didn’t get this one.
    Your “junk’ mail filter has finally realised the source of the mail and reacted accordingly
    Don’t change your settings!!

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