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Political Robocalls. Are our elected officials arrogant, or just stupid?

2009 October 18

Or maybe they just think we’re stupid.

You see, in 2008 the FTC amended the Telemarketing Sales Rule which made it a violation of the law for businesses to place robocalls.

Why?  Well, according to Jon Leibowitz, Chairmain of the FTC:

“American consumers have made it crystal clear that few things annoy them more than the billions of commercial telemarketing robocalls they receive every year. Starting September 1 (2009), this bombardment of prerecorded pitches, senseless solicitations, and malicious marketing will be illegal. If consumers think they’re being harassed by robocallers, they need to let us know, and we will go after them”.

Unless of course, those robocallers happen to be politicians.

While I applaud this government agency for allowing us peace and quiet during the dinner hour, I and many other Americans find it ironic that our elected officials saw fit to exempt themselves from those same rules. The FTC reasoned that:

“Political calls are not placed for the purpose of inducing purchases of goods or services, and therefore are not ‘telemarketing’ within the meaning of the TSR”.

I beg to differ. Elections are ALL about money. Candidates want to be elected and to get elected they need money. Why? Campaigns are expensive to mount.  Very expensive.  But why spend millions for a job that doesn’t pay that well?

Because it’s an amazing gig.  Nice perks and terrific benefits like health care for life if you are elected to the House or Senate. No wonder our elected officials don’t see any problem with the current state of health care. They have theirs; what’s the beef?

But this isn’t a rant on health care, this is a rant on a little loophole in the law that allows our elected officials and every other political cause to violate our privacy and our sanity by incessantly dialing our phone numbers to “sell” us on voting for them, or for their friend or their friend’s cause.

I find political robocalls all the more annoying and insulting because:

  1. Politicians know these calls are annoying but keep making them
  2. Political organizations seemingly distribute your personal information to any and all related candidates and causes.
  3. It’s impossible to get your phone number removed from their lists

I’ve emailed every candidate who has robocalled me on their own behalf and those who robocalled me on behalf of other candidates or causes and have requested to taken off their lists.

Only Dwight Pelz, Washington State Democratic Chair has bothered to respond, but not with the response I was hoping for.

His email to me was unapologetic, stating that robocalls are very effective; a sentiment echoed by Lance Stanley, owner of, an automated calling vendor out of Sacramento, Calif., that claims to be able to process 700,000 calls an hour.  According to Mr. Stanley (in a Newsweek article published on October 31, 2008),

“Automated phone calls are still the single most cost-effective way to reach out to people.”Since the company started in 2001, Stanley says business has grown by 25 percent each election year. “This year we’ll do about 100 million calls,” he says.”

Of course they are effective.  Compared to Television and other mass media robocalls are super inexpensive; about 7 cents a call.  So even if 1% of these calls actually go through, it’s worth the price.  That’s why sleazy businesses bombarded the public with these calls.  If connecting with 1% of households dialed makes telephone spamming financially advantageous, what are the real costs associated with annoying the 99% who answer and hang up?

Do robocalls actually work?  According to Newsweek reporter Matthew Philips:

“Research indicates that whether they’re listened to or not, robo-calls have no effect on voting habits. Don Green, a political science professor at Yale, subjected robo-calls to 12 randomized experiments for his 2004 book “Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout.” The results, he says, were revealing. “These calls never raise voter turnout. They have no mobilization effect, and no persuasion effect either. What matters is whether they change the probability of voting, and robo-calls have proven they do not.”

But “wait”, you say!  “Isn’t this supposed to be a blog about Social Media?  What does this have to do with Social Media?”


Savvy marketers know that consumers are overloaded with messages and are rejecting traditional advertising,  They know that consumers don’t believe advertising.  They rely on recommendations from friends when making a purchase.

These marketers are  connecting with active and prospective customers online.  They are listening first and participating in conversations only after careful consideration.  They aren’t blasting their messages through a megaphone to millions, they are interacting.  They understand that it’s more effective to offer information for consumers to “pull” when they are ready rather than to “push” unwanted messages which are typically ignored.

The internet has changed the way I research candidates and issues.  All direct mail pieces go directly into the recycle bin. Robocalls go directly to voice mail.  I try to respond to each and every robocall with an email requesting to be removed from any future calling lists.  I read the online voter’s guide and articles and editorials in online publications I trust.  I read blogs, and even posts from my online friends.  I do my research just as I would if I were to make a purchase.   In depth; online.

A political do not call registry has been started and claims to have 85,000 members.  According to its founder and CEO Shaun Dakin, the Federal Do Not Call registry “should apply to political calls, as well.  Robocalls essentially are phone spam.  People should be able to opt out.”

But I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Because when it comes to winning an election, all the rules of civility are tossed out the window.

Here are some links to stories about political robocalls:

Shaun Dakin’s call for a Voter Privacy Bill of Rights in an op-ed in the Washington Post.

First Amendment vs. final straw: Can we stop those annoying political ‘robocalls’? Should we? By BOB WARNER, Philadelphia Daily News

Consumer Smarts with Phuong Cat Le, Seattle PI, Feb 28, 2008.

And, some pertinent You Tube Videos:




2 Responses leave one →
  1. October 19, 2009

    Shaun’s a good guy if you’ve ever talked with him.

    On, we’ve seen complaints about robocalls increase — likely due to upcoming elections. On the website, people can lookup unwanted telecmarketer and robocall phone numbers who call you and post complaints.

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