Last week, we learned that online gamers can earn virtual currency by sending emails to Congress opposing health-care reform, stemming from a campaign by a health-insurance lobby group. The news of the scheme, reported by Gawker and the AP, suggests that at least some of the anti-reform emails lawmakers have received are something less than authentic expressions of grassroots passion, since they’re being sent by people who have been incentivized to get involved through the offer of rewards.
In response, the insurance industry group behind the anti-reform campaign has claimed ignorance. The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, which runs the insurers’ coalition in whose name the emails were sent, said in a statement that under its contract with the advertising firm running the campaign, “the use of incentivized ads is strictly prohibited.”
Jeff Smokler, a spokesman for BCBSA, told TPMmuckraker that the ad took users to a website that was designed looked like the site for the insurers coalition, Get Health Reform Right, but was in fact a fake. “Our platform does not allow the sending of letters that stemmed from an outside advertising network,’ Smokler said, adding that BCBSA’s ad network has confirmed that its blocking software was in use. “So I feel confident that the 700,000 people who have sent the letters did so through their own volition.”
Smokler said BCBSA had engaged “technical experts” in order to try to discover the source of the ads, and the fake site. In the meantime, he said BCBSA had suspended all online advertising.
There’s no reason to doubt that the insurers don’t know who created the ads. But in a sense, that’s exactly the problem. A closer look at the process through which lobby groups like the health insurers and the Chamber of Commerce generate “grassroots” emails to lawmakers in support of their political goals makes it easy to see how the incentive scheme could have arisen without the direct knowledge of the entity on whose behalf the emails ultimately went out. And how the involvement in the process of a string of middlemen firms allows the ultimate client — in this case, the health insurers — to distance itself from any suggestion of deliberate deception.
Here’s how things seem to have worked:
Get Health Reform Right, the insurers’ coalition, contracted with 720 Strategies, a political persuasion firm specializing in online outreach, Smokler confirmed to TPMmuckraker. The coalition might pay 720 anywhere from $3.50 per name generated.
720 Strategies boasts on its website that it has recruited over 5,000,000 “activists” on behalf of a diverse list of clients that includes AARP, Harrah’s Entertainment, and the National Council of La Raza. An archived page from the 720 site — since removed — states that “720 Strategies has a four-year relationship with the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.” 720’s campaign has “enabled BCBSA to recruit more than 1,000,000 advocates who have delivered more than 2,000,000 communications to key legislative targets, in the form of e-mail, faxes, letters, telegrams, and phone calls,” 720, it says, has also worked “in coalition with BCBSA organizational partners.”
But it’s not 720 that actually recruits the people who sign and send the emails. They sub-contracted the job to Webclients Affiliate Network, a direct online marketing firm, which specializes in selling commercial offers like subscriptions to NetFlix. Webclients would likely in turn hire yet another firm, to make the actual contacts with regular people.
It’s this firm, three links down the chain from the original client, BCBSA, which creates the websites and ads — often those annoying pop-ups you close as soon as they open — that attract people looking for deals. A typical incentive might be: in order to receive a free email newsletter advertising discounts on products, you have to sign up for several offers. Those are usually commercial offers — but increasingly, they’re from lobby groups like the health insurers, and direct people to send pre-written letters to Congress on issues in which they likely have little knowledge or interest.
Given the presence of so many middlemen, it’s perhaps hardly surprising that one of them may have tried to get around the prohibition on incentivized ads by creating a fake site that used an offer of virtual currency to generate emails.
We’ll have more on this later today.
Late Update: In an interview with TPMmuckraker, Pam Fielding, the president of 720 Strategies, echoed Smokler, saying that the ad reported on by Gawker and the AP could not be a legitimate product of the campaign. That’s because the campaign uses a hosted environment that doesn’t allow incentivized ads. No legitimate ads send users directly to the health insurers’ site. “It had to be a phony ad,” she said.
Both her company and BCBSA, she said, are victims. “We don’t do incentivized ads,” she said.
It’s still unclear, though, who would benefit from creating a phony ad designed to mimic the health insurers’ ad. Webclients would have little incentive to do so, Fielding said, because they can only get paid on the basis of emails sent through the legitimate system. Fielding suggested the scheme could have been perpetrated by political opponents of BCBSA’s position on health-care reform, or by 720 Strategies’ industry competitors, in order to discredit either BCBSA or 720.
So there are still more questions than answers on this. We’ll keep you updated as we try to get some clarity.