The Pay-Per-Click Presidential Candidate: Free Chocolate and Wesley Clark

Today's column is like a loose thread on a wool sweater. It started as a small observation, but the more I pulled, the more things began to unravel. Before we're done we will have touched on questionable co-reg tactics, the bizarre marketing strategy of a major presidential candidate, and of course, "Free Chocolate!" The thread began on Nov 22nd. All I had to do was start pulling:

The Brand: General Wesley Clark
Email Campaign:

Date: Nov 22, 2003, 3:11 pm
Subject Line: "Join the Clark for President Campaign"
From: "REPLACE BUSH."

The body of the email was a simple text ad and link. The complete text read:

"Join the Clark for President Campaign. Click below:

HYPERLINK "http://r.pm0.net/s/c?4h.71fz.1.3ten.bu56a" \t "_new" http://r.pm0.net/s/c?4h.71fz.1.3ten.bu56a

Thank You!!!"

Okay, the pitch is a bit on the minimalist side, but it is certainly a direct enough call to action. Unfortunately, the link that was supposed to drive you to the Clark for President web site didn't work three out of four of the times we tried it. Instead of driving you to the landing page, it drove you to a blank page. I certainly hope General Clark was not paying by the click!

Questionable Co-Registration: Through the CETS software program we were able to determine that although the email was sent by someone at the "clipart.to" domain name, we had actually received it as a result of registering for the Beauty4Free.com newsletter, part of the Topica network of newsletters. Beauty4Free.com's Privacy Policy clearly states: "Beauty4Free.com will NEVER release, sell or give a Members name or e-mail address to any other entity, party or organization, without the member's explicit prior permission." So who's this Clipart.to? Have we just been spammed by a presidential Candidate?

The answer lies in a very questionable co-reg policy. Unless you are extremely careful when you sign up for the Beauty4Free.com newsletter, you will find that you have agreed to the following offer: "Mmmm! Sign me up with TheChocolatePage.com and QuickFreeSamples.com to get FREE CHOCOLATE, FREE SAMPLES and great deals on the web!" Left unchecked, you will start to receive emails from Innovate It, a Swedish marketing firm that also owns the Clipart.to domain name. What does Wesley Clark for President have to do with Free Chocolate or Free Samples? Your guess is as good as ours.

Innovate It used a proprietary software program from a company called Savicom to deliver the Clark email. I spoke with Savicom's Vice President of Marketing, Bill McGee, who expressed some genuine shock about the email campaign. Savicom prides itself on enforcing strict anti-spam guidelines for the third-party marketers that use its software program. McGee began to immediately research the issue and reported back the following:

"Innovateit clearly did not properly set recipient expectations, either in terms of message content or frequency, conditions that we stipulate in our AUP. The recipient did not expect to see ads for Wesley Clark, meaning our customer failed to deliver an email based on expectations set at sign-up. We will work with this customer to refine his list practices."

But the story gets better..

Date: Nov 23, 2003, 7:24 am
Subject Line: "Tommys Signature Scent at Fab"
From: Mary at Fab

This campaign rolled out the next day, this time on the "Fabulous FreeStuff" mailing list, (also a Topica list). We had opted-in and it was clearly identified as such. So far, so good.

But you must ask yourself: Do you want to vote for a president who sandwiches himself between offers for "Free Bingo Cards" and "Free Bikinis from Hanes?"

That's right. The potential leader of the free world is driving clickthroughs to his web site alongside other "Free Goodies of Day" brought to you by the Fabulous Free Stuff newsletter. Below is a sampling, in order, of that day's offers:

"Hey Ladies! Do you want 10 Complimentary Bingo Cards Now? Go Here.

- Join the Only Candidate who can Beat Bush!

- Register Free And Save On LandOLakes Butter, Kids Meals, Betty Crocker items, Department Stores and others!

- Free Bikinis in assorted colors in sizes of 5,6 and 7 only from Hanes!

- Free Hamburger! "

It goes on from there.

Date: Nov 24, 2003, 10:30 am
Subject Line: "Cosmetics at Beauty today"
From: Jackie at Beauty

The next day, Nov. 24, we tracked the final email in this campaign.. This time it was clearly sent via the Beauty4Free.com newsletter. Inexplicably, General Clark's ratings in the freebie universe dropped from second place to sixth in the email offer, this time trailing an offer to win a plasma TV:

"Free bottle of Wine, Wine Glasses, Wine Opener And Other Goodies With This Club!

Win a Land Rover Discovery!

Free Cosmetics! - Receive a bounty of free cosmetics, beauty products and fragrances.

Win A Spot On The Celine Dream Team Tour!

Go here for a chance to win a 42" Plasma Television!

Join the Only Candidate who can Beat Bush!

Register Free And Save On LandOLakes Butter, Kids Meals, Betty Crocker items, Department Stores and others!

Free Hamburger!"

Questions for Review:

Is debasing yourself as just another clickthrough in a long list of "Freebies" really the way to get votes?

Are the people who are looking for "Free Hamburger!" your best targets to fill up those campaign coffers?

Why is Wesley Clark's campaign using a Swedish marketing firm, when there are plenty of marketing firms right here in the good old USA that could do at least as bad a job?

Should offering free chocolate but delivering a presidential candidate instead be considered spamming, or maybe even bait-and-switch?

All I can say is: Try it next Halloween, and see what the kids think.