The famous Sandler Selling System, pioneered in the 1970s by salesman David H Sandler, involves a classic technique called Negative Reverse Selling. To succeed, a salesperson sometimes takes the unintuitive stance of appearing more negative about a sale than their prospects. Like a swinging pendulum, potential buyers faced with greater scepticism than their own tend to fall back to a more neutral consideration of a product or service.
Sandler explains that negativity from the salesperson can help remove the pressure to buy, allowing prospective buyers a chance to more fairly assess a product’s benefits and sell themselves.
To some, the strategy is nothing short of outright manipulation. After all, salespeople who pretend to be negative about making a purchase are lying, aren’t they? On the other hand, people generally dislike pushy salespeople. Some argue that removing pressure and encouraging a fair appraisal of an offering’s merits is a valuable service to customers.
But where does a salesperson cross the line between helping a potential buyer evaluate a purchase and outright lying for gain?
Political reverse selling
A real world example unveiled this week by the New York Times might help clarify this line. Instead of buyers and sellers the case involves voters and campaigners in the 2017 US Senate special election in Alabama. The special election arose after then US Senator, Jeff Sessions, agreed to become President Donald Trump’s Attorney General (a position that lasted just nine months before Mr Sessions was fired).
To fill Mr Sessions vacated seat, the state held a hotly contested election between Republican, Roy Moore, who made headlines after being accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and assault, and Democratic challenger, Doug Jones. In the end, Mr Jones carried the election by a narrow 1.7% margin to become the first Democratic senator from Alabama in 25 years.
But now several of the measures taken by Mr Jones’s Democratic supporters during the election are in doubt. In what is now the second covert effort by Alabama Democrats to be revealed by the New York Times, the paper reports that progressive Democrats secretly set up a fake Facebook page and associated Twitter account called “Dry Alabama” that posed as a right-wing campaign supporting a statewide alcohol ban.
The pages were alleged to be set up by Baptist teetotallers who favoured Mr Moore. “Pray for Roy Moore,” exhorted one tweet and other posts showed images of car wrecks and videos of families destroyed by drinkers.
While alcohol was temporarily banned by constitutional amendment in the United States between 1920 and 1933, modern calls for alcohol prohibitions are generally considered extreme and politically unfeasible. In a strategy reminiscent of Sandler’s reverse negative selling, it appears Democrats hoped their fake Facebook and Twitter campaign would paint Mr Moore as an extremist and hurt him with moderate, business-oriented Republicans.
According to reporting by The Times, the project received $100,000 and resulted in an impressive number of views. Facebook posts were viewed 4.6 million times and liked or shared 97,000 times. Videos pushing the “Dry Alabama” message were watched 430,000 times. Matt Osborne, a progressive activist who participated in the “Dry Alabama” project, said he hoped the kind of deceptive tactics used in the campaign would be made illegal. Until then, he said that Democrats would be reluctant to give them up while groups of Republicans were engaging in similar practices. “If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back,” Mr Osborne said. “You have a moral imperative to do this — to do whatever it takes.”
A separate New York Times report published in December uncovered another deceptive Democratic disinformation campaign in Alabama. For that effort, campaigners made a bogus conservative Facebook page and sent an army of Russian-looking Twitter accounts to follow Mr Moore’s account in an attempt to make voters believe he was receiving Russian support. The revelation of this effort led Facebook to permanently close five accounts and prompted Senator Jones to call for a federal investigation.
Both of these covert campaigns were created shortly after the full scale of Russia’s social media interference in the 2016 US Presidential campaign was becoming widely known. Many Democrats were among those who spoke most vehemently against Russian interference. Yet instead of discouraging such practices, Russia’s meddling appears to have led to a rise in dirty tricks on social media by domestic actors, including Democrats.
Indeed, just one year after thousands of fake Russian accounts on Facebook and Twitter posed as Americans, a group of Americans - in this case Alabama Democrats - pretended to be conservative state residents. In the end, the efforts may not have made the difference in the election of Mr Jones. But they cannot be entirely ruled out either. The $200,000 spent on the two projects is tiny compared to the $51 million total cost of the race but the margin of Mr Jones’ victory was just 22,000 votes out of 1.3 million votes cast.
Whether the deceptive campaigns helped swing the election or not, voters will not appreciate being manipulated by their own side. Social trust is damaged when political actors use outright lies to persuade. This kind of negative reverse sell might work the first or second time but what happens when voters stop believing their institutions are honest?