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January 04, 2005

White House Has New Weapon in Social Security Privatization Effort: "Gossiping Grannies"

Granny_thumbTo build support for its social security privatization plan, the Bush administration is relying on a cutting-edge marketing strategy in which thousands of seniors work as agents for the government. These "grey-haired guerillas" are trying to convince their friends, relatives, even their bingo competitors, that private retirement accounts are the way to go.

When circumventing the media "filter" turns into the telephone game

By Deanna Swift

BOCA RATON, FL—Retiree Esther Chapman and her friend June Metz have just finished their lunch of chicken salad sandwiches and grapes when Chapman turns the conversation to Social Security. Has Metz heard about President Bush's proposal to let workers invest some of their withholding money? Metz, a 72-year-old former seamstress with six grandchildren, is all ears. Over pound cake and decaf, Chapman describes the President's plan to let young people divert part of their payroll taxes into private accounts, as her friend gently peppers her with questions. By the time the dishes have been washed and put away, the President has a convert.

Guerilla_granniesWhile conversations like these are happening all over the country these days, Esther Chapman is no ordinary senior. The 79-year-old former nurse, who sports a mop of grey curls and oversized glasses, is part of a novel Bush administration initiative in which seniors serve as informal and unpaid pitch people for the Social Security privatization plan.

Winning over one granny at a time
The "word of mouth" marketing strategy is part of an all out push by the administration to win converts to the idea of private Social Security accounts. And while companies from Proctor and Gamble to DuPont and Kayem Foods have used the guerrilla technique to great success, this is the first known use of one-on-one persuasion to build support for a government initiative.

But the whispering campaign isn't without its challenges. The Bush plan is complicated, as even its most ardent supporters will attest, and with thousands of "grey-haired guerrillas" on the ground, factual accuracy has been an early casualty.

As Chapman and Metz prepare to say goodbye—Chapman plans to ply her wares at a neighborhood shuffleboard course, her friend is off to an afternoon card game—Metz asks a final question about the payroll tax diversion that could make or break her grandkids' retirements. What's the percentage that they will be able to invest? Chapman tries to remember. "It's either 6.3% or 63%. Or maybe it's 36%." she says. "I swear, I can't remember anything these days."

A tough sell
Faith_wh_2Across town, Berta DeLaureo brings up the idea of private accounts at the local bingo hall. When a senior at an adjoining table calls out "bingo!," meaning that she's won $250, DeLaureo deftly drops a mention of the private accounts. Are her tablemates—some of whom won't retire for another 10 years—aware that their Social Security checks could go up by much more than $250 if the President's plan goes through?

This particular group isn't impressed. "I've heard about it and if you'll pardon my French, its crap," says Joannie Stein, a 68-year-old part-time hair dresser. "Bush just wants to reward his wealthy friends on Wall Street."

DeLaureo doesn't make much headway, and when the next round of bingo commences, she quickly takes her leave. "I know what's wrong with them. They've seen those AARP ads," she says, referring to new televised spots being run by the senior advocacy group that liken Social Security privatization efforts to playing the slots. "I don't know what they're so opposed to," says DeLaureo. "Seniors love to play the slots."

Peddling privatization, tastefully
Rose Dressler has a decidedly easier task on her hands. The wife of retired Boca real estate magnate Buddy Dressler, tonight she's entertaining a crowd of local businessmen and community boosters who are already sympathetic to the idea of privatizing the government-run retirement program.

Ss_cardSince she need not peddle the President's plan over champagne cocktails and chicken canapés, Dressler is pushing a more subtle agenda: she's hoping that Morgan Stanley, the Wall Street financial giant, will be chosen to manage the new private accounts. "Morgan is my favorite," says Dressler. "I just have a really good feeling about them." To get her point across, Dressler will hand each guest a cocktail napkin monogrammed with the letters "M" and "S." "I'm hoping the letters will just sort of stay with them."

Of course Dressler also supports the President's plan on its merits, especially the idea that younger workers will soon be able to divert 63% of their payroll taxes into private accounts. When a reporter questions her about the accuracy of her figures, Dressler is resolute. "I got my information from a real insider, a friend of mine here in town who is helping out the administration." The friend's name: Esther Chapman.

Deanna Swift can be reached at [email protected] 

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