John McCain thinks he has your number. About a month before the election, facing insurmountable odds, McCain expanded his character attacks on Barack Obama to include robocalls, eventually shifting the scurrilous side of his campaign entirely from TV to telephone. In response, Obama put out his own automated telephone calls.
After weeks of fretting and finger-pointing, tracking and documenting, it's about time someone asks the question: do robocalls even work?
From a marketing standpoint, the answer is clearly no. Robocalls fail in three areas that are crucial for any direct response campaign: they are intrusive, they are impersonal and they offer no incentive for voters to listen all the way to the end of the message.
If your message feels intrusive, you're at a disadvantage before you've even begun. No one likes to be bothered, and interrupting an experience that is deemed valuable - whether it's work, family, entertainment, relaxation - means the recipient will be negatively predisposed to the message. In other words, they don't want to hear it.
This is common sense. It's so obvious that it's easily overlooked. Many marketers (and aren't politicians just marketers with a bit more self-righteousness?) are so enamored of the message that they believe they can simply shove words into someone's ear and let them germinate. But human beings don't work that way. They will assign a positive or negative value to those words, based on factors unrelated to the words themselves.
The key to being persuasive is making a connection with the voter. In person, this has a lot to do with the immediate, sometimes subconscious, responses that people have to appearance, voice, presentation, etc. On television, the trick is to lead with images that people deem meaningful and impactful, and that support the message. On the telephone, it comes down to diction, inflection and response.
Robocalls, where a recorded or automated voice drones on about issues - often reciting talking points that are inconsistent with other appearances or the accepted narrative - have an even tougher time of making that connection. And absent the give-and-take of a natural conversation, there is little opportunity to change a person's mind. At least, not in favor of the robocaller.
At the very least, the message must get fully delivered. While the first two points deal with penetration, no message can penetrate if it isn't delivered. Different media offer varying incentives to ensure the audience sits through the message. On television, they stay tuned in anticipation of the programming content. In person, at best, the combination of the message and the messenger is compelling; at worst, it's common decency that keeps them from slamming a door in someone's face. When the messenger is a recorded voice and there are no consequences of rudely hanging up mid-sentence, the marketer or politician has a steep uphill battle in getting the listener to keep the handset to his or her ear. In fact, a Pew Research study conducted during the 2008 primary found that over 50% of robocall recipients hang up before the call is complete.
To compensate for this, marketers load up the message with hot-button, emotional terms and dramatic accusations - all of which add to the sense of outlandishness and implausibility.
So, on a strategic level, robocalls seem to be a disaster. But people keep using them, and the outrage surrounding them is so shrill, they must be effective. Right? Daniel Dale, reporting for the Toronto Star, found no evidence of that. He quotes Donald Green, Yale's Institution for Social and Policy Studies' Donald Green, who has studied robocalls over the past eight years: "We, so far, found a perfect record of it never working."
So, while the content of these robocalls may enrage people on both sides of the campaign, rest easy - there's nobody holding the phone.