Internet advertising may take on new importance in this year's presidential poll as political advertisers seek ways around the ban on so-called "issue ads" within 60 days of a general election.
That prohibition, part of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance act, applies to television, cable and radio, but not the Internet. Political advertising on the Internet has been growing anyway because of its low cost and the relative ease with which results can be monitored.
"Everybody's waiting for the volcano to erupt, particularly if the restrictions on soft-money spending on broadcast media, which go into effect in September, encourage one or the other campaign to distribute a visual message through the Internet," said Michael Cornfield, senior research consultant with The Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Television is still the megaphone of choice for political candidates and advocacy groups, which together have spent more than $500 million on TV ads this year. By the end of May advertisers had spent a total of $1.3 million on political ads online, according to media research firm TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, which first started tracking online spending this election cycle. The Republican National Congress and the Bush-Cheney and Kerry campaigns each spent about $400,000 and MoveOn.org, a liberal grassroots fundraising organization, spent about $50,000.
These numbers may keep going up because of the extra cash in campaign coffers. "They've already saturated all the broadcast outlets in the 16 or so targeted states; they can't buy another ad," said Brooks Jackson, director of Annenberg Political Fact Check, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center that monitors political ads.
Part of the attraction of advertising on the Web is that it's cheap and seemingly effective. The John Kerry campaign spent $37,000 on online ads and raised $26.7 million over the Internet in the first three months of this year. The figure includes donations from people who gave directly on the campaign Web site as well as from those who reached the Web site via an online ad.
Another benefit is that a campaign can measure the results of its banner ads or sponsored links nearly immediately after placing an ad and can change advertising strategies in mid-stream. Online ads can also target potential voters by location and often reach people at a time of day when they aren't inundated by ads from other media. More than 60% of American adults are online and a third of American adults have broadband connections either at home or on the job.
Senator Kerry's campaign has pursued a successful fundraising strategy with ads on the Web sites of national and local media such as the Village Voice, the San Francisco Chronicle and salon.com. In June the campaign raised a total of $36.5 million, of which $12.1 million was received online.
The newest form of advertising online has been Web logs, or blogs, which tap into a pool of partisans who are willing to donate, said Glenn Hanson, director of the Political Communication Center at the University of Oklahoma. More than 70 candidates and 120 causes have advertised on blogs via BlogAds, a network that represents blogs. Henry Copeland, founder of BlogAds, said advertising revenue has increased 30% this month over June. He wouldn't disclose the actual amount.
Mr. Cornfield at the Pew Project said the Internet offers more precise demographic targeting than traditional media, though that ability depends on the data a Web publisher collects about its readers. "AOL will not only know who in Georgia is white and male and 25-35 but they will also know who within that subset has responded favorably to similar ads in the past by clicking through to the sponsored site," he said.
Unlike traditional media, online advertising can reach a young audience that prefers to get information from the Internet or from cable TV and may be cynical about politics, said Jonathan Trenn with Pericles Consulting LLC, which oversees Internet advertising for the Bush-Cheney campaign. "It makes sense to go where they are, because a lot of younger people haven't solidified their views yet," he said.
In contrast to his opponent, President Bush's campaign has pursued a messaging rather than fundraising approach on the Web. One strategy took advantage of online marketing's precision to target young men with ads on song lyric Web sites and sports sites like Fox Sports and World Wrestling Entertainment. In May the campaign developed its first major online ad targeting women and parents, an ad featuring Laura Bush with the slogan "Education Is My Passion" on 60 Web sites including cookinglight.com and parenting.com.
Though TV ads will continue to hold center stage, the Bush-Cheney campaign will keep advertising online about issues, according to Eric Porres, chief operating officer at Pericles Consulting.
Evan Tracey, founder of TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, disagreed. He expects the candidates to advertise less after the conventions because they will be barred from fundraising, but the Democratic National Congress, the RNC and advocacy groups will still be able to raise money.
So far the Bush-Cheney campaign has devoted a small sliver of its ad dollars -- less than 5% -- to online ads but will likely increase the percentage of dollars spent online. Porres said he plans to double the amount of dollars spent on online ads between now and election day.
Porres noted that the political campaigns have been careful about their online spending and slow to take full advantage of online ads. "Many of the political consultants who are advising campaigns have not yet fully come to grips with the Internet as an advertising medium," he said. He predicted that 2008 could be the big year for political advertising online.
"What you're seeing in this election is probably the Internet playbook for the next couple elections," said Tracey.
Michelle Tsai, The Wall Street Journal. July 27, 2004.
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