As the election season gets closer here in California, I’ve become fascinated by the direct mail campaigns of the political candidates.  I don’t have cable, you see, so I rarely see television advertising. And my radio listening is primarily NPR those rare times I’m in the car.  Every day I get one or more pieces of direct mail from the current crop of political hopefuls. Some days I will get up to three from a single candidate in the same day.

I’ve started to love getting the direct mail campaigns. In a world where every company is plunging headfirst into data science to target their advertising and improve conversion, political campaigns seem to be taking the hope approach: Flood them with messages that have only the most superficial a to the voters. And it’s almost entirely a match that is strictly tied to voter gender.

We take it for granted and approach the personalization of advertising from a variety of perspectives. We’re paranoid and want to limit access when it goes to far. But I think that we have also come to appreciate the fact that we have some control over what advertising we see (and what we don’t).

When I look at the direct mail campaigns from political hopefuls, I’m reminded that they are still operating as if the spaghetti method works. Throw it up against the wall and hope something sticks. Flood them with paper.

I find getting three pieces of direct mail from the same candidate, each with a different message, every few days fuels my disappointment. The spaghetti approach highlights how superficial the candidate messages are because, unfailingly, their attempts to connect are so obviously gender-based. I’m left feeling disappointed (or outright angry) at the candidate.

Why would I vote for someone who actively demonstrates that they really do not care who I am or what I care about? Why would I vote for someone who thinks that because I’m a woman, I only care about schools and family issues and that only my husband cares about economic issues? Why would I vote for someone who repeatedly tries to put me in a box that I refuse to be put into and don’t fit.

I’m a woman who lives in Silicon Valley. I’m a computer scientist (degreed, from a top 10 program). I’m married. My husband lives with me. He is also a computer scientist (same qualifications, different institutions). We both have advanced degrees. We have no children. I’ve started two companies, one a non-profit. I run one and sit on the board of the other as well as two other non-profit organizations.

I’m also the Treasurer of the San Francisco Bay ACM. The ACM is the professional organization for Computer Scientists. I’ve been involved for nearly two decades, in one way or another. The SF Chapter has a Data Science SIG that has hosted the Data Science Camp (an unconference) for more than 10 years. I’m lucky and admit it because, in Silicon Valley, I have been privileged to hear a lot of really good Data Science speakers.

Let’s play a little game.

Can you guess who got which piece of direct mail? Your choices are:  Liz, Paul, or “the household” (it included both names) ?

Have you made your selections? Here are the answers:

Ro Khanna: (A) Both (B) Liz (C) Liz

Marc Berman: (A) Both (B) Liz (C) Both

I get babies, toys/childish behavior, and pictures of the candidate’s grandmother (something he pointed out multiple times in the accompanying text).

And these are a little better than the ones I got last month. May 11th Marc Berman sent two circulars the same day. Here’s how it broke down: One was addressed only to me. One was addressed only to Paul. Mine was all about kids, families, and classrooms. For Paul, it was all Fiscal Responsibility.

Every message sent to me personally could be in the “Things Mothers Relate To” category on Jeopardy.

We all know Data Science can do better and we have come to expect it. We certainly know how damaging stereotypical messages can be when received by the one being stereotyped.

I’ve turned this whole thing into a game on Facebook. I’ve started collecting the political mailers — we’re in our last week before the primaries here in California — and posting pictures of them. Then I ask people to guess which ad went to which addressee. No researching and no links to candidate positions or websites because that’s not the test. The test is to see if people can tell who the target was simply based on the imagery of the direct mail campaign.

I’m looking forward to seeing the results.

In the meantime, I really hope that the data scientists out there can help someday.

For now, let me give an Honorable Mention:

Barry Chang

Barry Chang, Mayor of Cupertino running for State Delegate, sends 1 campaign maybe once a week. It is addressed to “Postal Customer.” I give him a big thumbs up for two very big reasons:

  1. He addresses the entire household. Equally.
  2. He only sends 1 campaign once a week, while other candidates who proclaim environmental concerns send multiple campaigns every few days.

He also says thank you. Altogether, it’s respectful and appreciated. At least by me.

And, for the benefit of humanity everywhere, please, Data Scientists and Relationship Marketers, hand these folks a clue!

– From someone who still hasn’t decided who she’s voting for, just who she will not be.