Journalism in the Public Interest

Message Machine: Dinner at Sarah Jessica Parker’s House

Last Monday, the Obama campaign sent out an email about a dinner with the President at Sarah Jessica Parker’s house this coming Thursday. We received 7 versions of it.


Sarah Jessica Parker in New York City. (Photo by Simon Russell/Getty Images)

The 2012 Presidential campaigns have massive, state-of-the-art databases that contain data on millions of voters and past supporters, which they’re using to compete in a campaign that’s increasingly being fought online. While the campaigns started amassing these databases in past cycles to target direct mail, this political season they are being augmented and used in new and sometimes opaque ways.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been asking readers to send us the campaign emails they receive to help us understand and shine a light on how modern campaigns are being run. So far about 250 readers have sent us more than 1,800 email examples.

For instance, last Monday, the Obama campaign sent out an email about a dinner with the President at Sarah Jessica Parker’s house this coming Thursday. Participants in our Message Machine project forwarded over 100 copies of this mailing to us and we found seven distinct variations of the message. The Obama campaign refused to comment on the email but you can explore the differences in the Message Machine.

Some versions of this message promise, in a postscript, an after-dinner concert by Mariah Carey, while others barely mention the concert. The mailings show the campaign tailoring its message for different audiences — variations of the message ranged from a very brief introduction and a link to a video, to a longer email asking for a donation. Recipients who had recently donated to the Obama campaign received emails with slightly different wording than those who had not, but just who is being targeted with some of the variations is hard to decipher. For instance, one variant mentions that Sarah Jessica Parker is a mother, while another that Anna Wintour is attending the dinner. These changes in wording suggest that the campaign is optimizing their messages, but we need a bigger sample to figure out how. The more people who forward messages, the clearer and more accurate our results will be. If you receive campaign emails and would like to take part in the project, please send them to

R Andrew Ohge

June 12, 2012, 3:18 p.m.

Yep…this started with me several months ago with a “chance to win dinner with Michelle and Me” allegedly signed by “Barack”. I was mildly amused at the inventiveness of the solicitation, I tossed in $3 bucks. As I continued to get E-Mail from “Barack”, Michelle, Alec and/or Tammy Baldwin, Sarah J Parker, I realized how it was actually working. I started replying, ultimately commenting, “I have serious doubts I will ever sit across the table from “Barack, Michelle & Family” unless I send in a Million or more, and then as soon as the first question exits my mouth, I’ll likely get flung over the fence by the Secret Service. Would I go, if I “won”? Sure, but the chances of that equal the current denizens of Wall Street taking a vow of poverty and beginning a Monastic life.

Seriously? Aren’t there much more important things to investigate these days? This seems very trivial.

Richard McDonough

June 12, 2012, 3:27 p.m.

Glad to see you following the really meaty and tough stories.  What bullshit!!

You people are surely on your way to uselessness.

R Andrew Ohge

June 12, 2012, 3:38 p.m.

Focusing on nothing but seriousness gets a little droll after awhile. No one has likely forgotten the Banksters, Syria, Ukraine, Fukushima, Bilderberg, and the ongoing assault on our Liberties under the Banner of Security. Keeping our minds fresh to deal with each new outrage isn’t a bad thing. This is just that sort of thing. I don’t think the writer was trying to create a Pulitzer Prize winner here, just noting a phenomena, by which-if YOU were bypassed-cool for you. Take a deep breath and chortle a little.

It might occur to you that this somewhat important, being an attempt to (in a sense) buy votes with a raffle to meet a lame celebrity.

Get the #1 NY Times Best Seller “Amateur” by Klein and see if you want to give Ovomit one cent.  Actually, unless you lived under a rock the past three plus years, you’d know that Obama is an amateur!!! He doesn’t have a clue as to what he’s doing.  He makes Jimmy Carter look like a moderate. Wake up America!  ROMNEY for PRESIDENT!

steve naegele

June 12, 2012, 4:15 p.m.

I don’t think optimizing an invitation by tailoring the content to the recipient is a negative thing in itself, that is one of the advantages of this computerized electronic period and considered good marketing.

Lies, deception and false representation are not considered good marketing where ever it happens. And that includes collecting information under false pretenses as well as miss-using that information.

I read your stuff all the time but this one kind of amazed me. Are you getting a little bored with substantial stories? I read it thinking there would be something about illegal use of data, fraud or something but all I found was that the campaign (like all marketers) are using different messages to appeal to different audiences. Maybe I missed something?

Judith Sylvester

June 12, 2012, 4:51 p.m.

I saw this as mildly entertaining; like all raffles that I buy and then never win.  However, I would like more transparency in this process.  Who actually “won” a dinner with the Obamas, the expense-paid trip to the George Clooney fundraiser and who wins the future “prizes.”  In other words, I do want to know whether only big donors are selected or if the little donors have an equal shot.  I know in my heart the answers, but I’d like to know for sure whether these are thinly veiled scams.  By the way, I also was invited to donate to win a dinner with the Romneys.  I thought that was pretty unoriginal, but I guess all politicians are desperate for dinner guests these days.

What evidence is there that this is audience-targetting, and not just A/B testing (or in this case, A/B/C/D/etc. testing) for message effectiveness, which is a very common industry practice?

If these mailings are so fine-tuned, why are they going to my husband?  I was the one who made a contribution in 2008.

Who is this Sarah Jessica Parker ?

margret brady

June 12, 2012, 6:50 p.m.

I had only donated $3, when I learned I had won a dinner. Took a while to believe it was true but I had a delightful time in DC with Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Eva Longoria and 3 other winners, all as surprised to win as I was. Expenses were paid but nothing was over the top and I felt it was a way for Obama’s people to get to know real people and their issues. Haven’t heard a word since then but it was an exciting day for this senior citizen from NJ and on a pretty tight budget.

I was also impressed with the intelligence of both Debbie and Eva. Yes, we’re on a first name basis now.

I was one of just the lucky few hundred thousand to get the same invitation, but I don’t have $3.00 to spare.  I did reply to the Email saying I wasn’t anxious to have dinner at Sarah’s even if she was a good mother.

Her show, Sex and the City, was enormously popular.  It, along with Seinfeld, did its best to remind American citizens that their chief assigment in life was to consume, spend time with friends and try to get married in a decent match.  Meanwhile, running parallel to both shows, and downtown, was the real reality, for the Doomsday Machine was busy taking its warm up laps with the hi-tech bubble, prepping for the big one in mortgage securities.

  In other words, there was no “political economy” anywhere to be seen in these shows, and they helped distract Americans from the deeper realities.

This is just stupid!  Of course they Taylor emails to their demographics.

Carola Von H.

June 12, 2012, 9:04 p.m.

Hasan Benler asked “Who is this Sarah Jessica Parker?” Answer: She pitches hair color products on TV. But back in the 90’s she appeared in the Tim Burton movie “Ed Wood”, a charming albeit fictionalized bio of the worst film director ever. His masterwork was “Plan 9 From Outer Space”. In Burton’s film, Sarah played Ed Wood’s girlfriend.

I would have had your latest Obama email example to send to ProPublica, but almost two weeks ago, I finally hit the “reply” button on one of their daily demands for campaign funds and gave them both barrels on how I felt about being constantly badgered, that I never respond with donations via their emails, the fact that I do go to their site to give $50/month (which I can barely afford) to their campaign, and don’t use their automatic monthly donation system since they don’t offer a cutoff date.

Haven’t received an email from them since, probably because I asked that they only send non-solicitation emails which actually deal with issues. I support Obama, but am not mourning over any missed opportunities to dine with Sarah whatsername.

Carola Von H:  Aaaaah, so Sarah Jessica Parker is an actress !  How is it explained that performers and sports players can be regarded as politically significant personages, even candidates, up to and including in Presidential Elections of these United States? A bit odd, perhaps ?

Dr. Raymond Whitham

June 12, 2012, 10:36 p.m.

WOW, tailored messages to different types of people - it MUST be suspicious (suspicious of what I don’t know). Do you work for Carl Roose or the Crotch Brothers? LOL, what idiots you are!

Have no objection to your “investigation” of political e-mailing, but it doesn’t seem like a compelling journalistic “attention-getter”.  Politicians have been tailoring their speeches for years often neither dishonestly nor hypocritically so.  How many of us are naive enough to believe that pol-talk is straight from the heart? E-mail writers probably get paid less than speech writers, but e-mails ARE less expensive.  As political journalism, this seems more titillating than substantive.

It fascinates me how many people are posting that the methods used to win a Presidential election are of no interest whatsoever.

If you don’t think adverising in the political arena is relevant, look up Edward Bernays.  He wrote a little book that revolutionized marketing and advertising in 1928, titled…well, no, you’ll need to look that up yourself.

I’m going to join those who think this is much ado about nothing.  My guess is that the minor differences aren’t the result of some grand scheme, but simply the by-product of probably different people making changes to the email that they send.  You’re assuming that the campaign has some master database of all of the people in the universe and tracks their preferences with omnicient accuracy.  My guess is that a few staffers have different distribution lists with a bunch of random email addresses populated based on such important factors as, who was in the office that day, who processed the donations, which email system were they logged into, were they working from home that day, etc., etc., etc. 
But I will grant you that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you.

Richard Rosser

June 13, 2012, 2:54 p.m.

Ok - Obama, whom I completely support over big-fat-liar-Mitt-Romney, uses sophisticated messaging to target different people with subtle versions of email messages saying basically “fancy celebrity is hosting dinner - please give money and you might win a seat.”  Love you guys but I’m not seeing much scandal here worthy of your efforts.


June 14, 2012, 3:44 p.m.

In the words of my professional exterminator, ‘who gives a rat’s patuukey’.  Obama had over $200 million dollars left over from his last campaign-what happened to it?  This isn’t another “birther” issue—the time the money was real; WHERE DID IT GO? 

SJP’s dinner is outright social exhibitionism on the part of upper crust society that actually believes, thinking good thoughts/believing good things/trusting in the “best” life has to offer and all our problems will disappear—totally naivety to the realities of life. 

Just what experience associated with performing makes “yahoo’s” such as SJP, the Baldwin’s, Sean Penn, and any other performers
qualified to take a public stand on any political issue.  These people think and honestly believe, that because they play a particular role in a play or a movie, that such portrayals gives them “particular” insight into the subject matter portrayed——NOT. 

What a bunch of “dweebs”.
G.V. Foreman

Judith Sylvester

June 14, 2012, 6:09 p.m.

Good grief!  First, this is a long standing tactic—remember Friends of Bill? Ronald Reagan was “one of them.” 

I was erroneously invited to a White House dinner when George W was president because I was confused with someone who had obviously given big bucks to the Republicans. I was quickly uninvited when I explained that I had not donated anything.

Second, while I think celebs should exercise care in how they use their influence, Sean Penn has been working in Haiti since that country’s devastating earthquake.  George Clooney has kept media attention on Darfur.  Brad Pitt and countless others have helped rebuild New Orleans.  Do you really think they have more political clout than the big donors behind Romney?

I’m not saying that fundraising should be ignored, but I’m much more concerned about the PACs than I am about celeb dinners that are pretty public.  I’m glad that someone who “won” a dinner with the president came forward here.  I just wish the fundraisers were a little more transparent about the process and who wins so that those who chose to donate know it is on the up and up.

I don’t see how hob knobbing with celebrities is going to help his chances at winning in November…. Sure I guess the money is useful, but the damage he is doing to himself with independent voters like me is irreversible… This president has become a joke pretty quick.

What really lost me with Obama is inability to understand even the most basic rudimentary planks of economics. I mean come on, blaming ATM’s and kiosks?  In 2009 an 2010, Obama was claiming recovery wont happen unless we pass his healthcare bill.. Well soon as it passed in March 2010, we were experiencing robust job growth, soon as the job was passed in March 2010, hiring IMMEDIATELY ceased and reversed.

The Buffet rule is a scam… He wants to raise taxes on incomes over 1 million dollars per year. But what Obama doesn’t mention is Buffet and other wealthy people do not earn an “an income” as described in the tax code. They earn capital gains from investments, so this Buffet rule wouldn’t even touch Warren Buffet and others.

But you know who the bulk of people reporting 1 million dollars of income on their personal taxes??? Small to medium sized business.. Part of the tax cuts in 2002 allowed small and medium sized business owners to add their business income to their personal taxes to escape the ridiciously high and absurd 39% corporate tax rate (small and med sized business cannot afford to purchase influence in Washington so they can’t get around paying the full 39%).... so instead the tax laws allow these business owners to pay tax on their business under the personal tax rate which was only a few percentage points less then the maximum.

When a small business reports their “profits” on their personal income tax it is only for the gross and does not include all expenses, payroll, investment, etc, so their margin isn’t anywhere near a million dollars, it is mostly closer to a hundred thousand or less.

So why would Obama want to raise taxes on these small business owners? Wouldn’t it hurt the economy further? Yes it would.

The only motivation i see is Obama wants to remove the competition from his biggest supporters.. Warren Buffet owns a wide range of companies that compete with small mom and pop shops.. So if he can get this “Buffet” rule passed, it would hit his competitors while leaving him alone to make even more money.

Obama is playing you and you are falling for it.

Son of Thunder

June 15, 2012, 2:55 p.m.

Corey - really?  So many mistakes in your rant.  I’ll just mention one: One million of income for owners of small and medium-sized businesses.  I cringe when the misinformed think that raising taxes on these people (and I am a small business owner) will “hurt the economy” as you say. You state that we report the business gross - that is wrong. We report the gross and the expenses but are only taxed on the net income after expenses . . . which leads to employees.  All businesses add staff when demand for our goods/services goes up. We WANT to add staff and taxes have NOTHING to do with adding them. Repeat after me: DEMAND, not taxes.  If more customers have more money to spend - we add staff and we’re happy to do it.
Oh, and the nations tax rates are the lowest in 60 years. The nation enjoyed tremendous economic growth during decades when our “ridiculous” tax rates for 70, 80 even 90% (although the average paid was lower of course, as it is now).  What you and so many don’t seem to understand is that top 20% have 80% of all the money - so far fewer customers have money to spend. The rich (including me) have all the money because the GOP has reduced taxes (the Dems helped) so low that effectively, the rich have scooped-up a majority of the money and they have no where to invest it. Why would they - so few have money to buy new things? (FYI: U.S. corporations are sitting on $2 Trillion in cash). A bit of hyperbole here but this is the problem.

Solution: raise taxes, reduce loopholes, DO NOT elect Republicans (I’ve been a Republican for 30 years) . . . then get money back into the economy through jobs like teachers, road construction, bridge refurbishing and other big projects while labor is cheap and the jobs need to be done.

Longer term solutions are another topic for another day but of course, extremely important.

Sons of Thunder: THANKS!! I was so stunned by the disinformation in Corey’s post, I decided it wasn’t worth the effort to respond since it would take a book. One other note via your straightening him out on the gross/net tax issue, is that the amount of increase would be only applied to the net amount exceeding the yet to be determined trigger point. (250 K is the figure which has been bandied around), not the entire earnings.

I’m curious to know where someone like Corey finds information for his arguing points. It’s so completely devoid of real facts!!

Son of Thunder

June 15, 2012, 6:20 p.m.

Thanks Carolyn and to Corey - not trying to berate you. My own mother has this stuff wrong because there are so many Republicans lying to the American public (or really confused). And don’t get me started on Fox News.

It’s amazing how the readers of PP think this is trivial or some kind of joke. Do they not realize that this is about using private information to market these email solicitations? Where are the Obamas getting this personal information and who is providing it to them? How could they know that one person would care about Mariah Carey and another person would not unless they had access to your search info or somethingtube or whytunes account? Wake up people this is a internet privacy issue!

Judith Sylvester

June 15, 2012, 10:49 p.m.

No, it is NOT an Internet privacy issue.  As I tried to say before, this is smart target marketing that both parties do (and have always done).  The media are a bit different now, but it’s really no different than the President announcing his immigration policy on the very day that Romney was kicking off his bus tour (and the Supreme Court might have issued an extremely important ruling), diverting media attention where the President wanted it to go.  And, by the way, I saw stories about SJP’s dinner on both TV and the Internet today.  I believe they are projecting a $4 million addition to the President’s kitty following the dinner.  But, I remind you that some of this is in a rather panicky response to Romney out raising the president last month.

The Republicans do this ALL the time, except their dinners are hosted by CEOs.  I fail to see the difference.  And, you don’t get these emails out of the blue.  You are either on a voter registration list (which means you used to get snail mail solicitations) or you have give money, volunteered or posted to a public forum.  My letter mentioned the Mariah Carey concert, and I have never bought one of her records or gone to a concert, so there is just no way they could know for sure that would matter to me.  Heck, I’ve never even played one of her songs on Pandora or bought one book about her on Amazon.  And, if you don’t understand what Pandora and Amazon are up to, then you’ll never understand where target marketing is going today.

After I gave a small donation in response to email, I started getting phone calls from some of the Democrat folks who are in field offices.  After about three or four of those, I said, thanks but no thanks.  If I gave any more money, it would be via the Internet.  I never do any business like this over the phone (but that was the way it was done before 2008).  I also got a text message over my iPhone this morning telling when the President would be giving his speech. 

There is no magic to any of this.  Just “good” use of new technology.  The President is young enough and smart enough to know that the younger generation will only be reached in this way.  McCain tried feebly to catch up in 2008.  I still get an occasional email from McCain and the Romneys, and I’m happy to get them, too.  I actually like to know where they are and with whom they are having dinner.  If you want to know how and why you were targeted, ask.  I’d like to see more transparency, especially from the PACs that are unleashing new ads as we speak with virtually no reporting requirements—and only a brief nod to the truth.

Judith, I disagree that it’s “normal politics.”  Obama announcing his immigration plan is an incumbent candidate taking a stand on an issue and facing the consequences.

A satellite office of a satellite office of the campaign offering dinner with a famous person is buying votes with plausible deniability.  And it’s also data collection and mining, so it’s a privacy problem, Internet or not.

Personally, I don’t like the idea of anybody collecting a dossier on me.  Government, big company, small company, non-profit, or political campaign alike, if their nose is in my business, I can’t trust them.  You shouldn’t, either.  (Imagine if they have a security breach—an attack or a rogue volunteer—and now some unknown criminal has who-knows-what about your kids, say.)

The Republicans do it, too?  Wrong is wrong, and when I teach, I don’t grade on a curve, and neither should you.  If the Republicans do it (and they do), then condemn them, too, rather than praising the Democrats for jumping down the same slippery slope.  That seems to indicate that you care more about the party than any issue, which is your right, but not a very defensible position when talking about issues.  The ends, after all, rarely justify extreme means.

The problem also isn’t necessarily today.  The problem is that failing to draw the line in the sand here means it won’t end.  In 2016, they could buy your Amazon purchase history.  In 2020, they could take your Internet browser history from your ISP.  In 2024, maybe they’ll have genetic scans showing that you’re prone to believe one kind of story over another.  And guess what, the people getting elected—the people benefitting from this erosion of privacy—are never going to stand against it.

And I should also say that Americans (young and old) should be horribly, horribly offended by the claim that you can only “reach” kids by sitting them next to people who are famous for repeating someone else’s opinions.  Any politician who thinks like that (or hires people who do), from any party, does not deserve your vote.  It says that you’re not smart enough to vote on issues and can be manipulated into support any atrocity by putting a pretty enough face on it.  Maybe you aren’t, but why would you trust someone who believes it?

Let me put this in perspective from a personal point of view.
1. I’m not pretty enough for a good photo op-nor am I “well-healed” enough…I won’t get invited for real.
2. POTUS REALLY doesn’t want me there asking the kinds of questions I’m liable to-so, again, I won’t really get invited.
3. Neither will any of you for most of the same reasons…sorry.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Buying Your Vote

Buying Your Vote: Dark Money and Big Data

ProPublica is following the money and exploring campaign issues you won't read about elsewhere.

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