With banner ads, candidates tailor their message
Online marketing opens new arena for reaching voters
LAS VEGAS -- At first glance it seemed peculiar to local political observers that Democrat Tom Gallagher of Las Vegas would bother plastering banner ads touting his bid for a local congressional seat all over huge international websites such as
Yet as global as those sites are, Gallagher's ads did not show up on computer screens in Boston, Beijing, or even the west side of Las Vegas. They appeared only on the screens of users in the ZIP codes that comprise the district in which Gallagher is challenging incumbent Representative Jon Porter, Republican of Nevada.
Indeed, these days your candidate not only knows where you live but where your computer lives -- and how to get inside. From news portals such as Yahoo and CNN.com to special-interest sites such as NASCAR.com and the job board Monster.com, politicians can now have their ads posted in a variety of highly tailored way, including having them appear in specific geographic areas.
Beyond that, though, a banner ad -- boxy billboard-like graphics that appear on the periphery of a site -- can be made to show up only above news stories on specific topics such as health care or the Iraq war that correspond to issues important to the candidate.
It could even be a combination of the two: If a candidate is trying to appeal to female voters, the ads might pop up on the websites of women's magazines but only in the ZIP codes the candidate wants.
It is this revolution, the ability to ''geo-target" voters via the Internet, that could make 2004 the year that banner ads arrived as a fixture of the ever-expanding menu of advertising options for local political campaigns.
Both the Kerry-Edwards and Bush-Cheney campaigns are using banner ads to raise money and attack each other, but it's the use of such tactics in local races that has fascinated political observers. A decade after Senator Dianne Feinstein of California built the first campaign website, and years since politicians started using e-mail to communicate with voters, the lowly banner ad is finally having its first banner year.
''This is fairly cutting edge," said Michael Cornfield, a senior research consultant with The Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington, D.C., and author of the book ''Politics Moves Online."
''It's still the exception rather than the rule," he added. ''It's always been accepted that radio reaches people in drive-time and television reaches them in prime-time. Now, through the Internet, you can reach people at work or school in a part of the day that was previously virgin territory for political advertisers."
Internet users passively enable geo-targeting by giving over their ZIP codes when they register or subscribe for many sites and services, and Internet service providers such as local cable companies also facilitate advertisers' efforts to geo-target the masses by offering such information to political consultants, specialists say.
''They now know exactly who's looking at your ads," said Republican political strategist Becky Donatelli, whose firm, Hockaday Donatelli Campaign Solutions, won first place for overall Internet campaign in 2003 from the American Association of Political Consultants for its work on Governor George E. Pataki's 2002 reelection in New York.
''They may not know your name," Donatelli added, ''but they know an awful lot about you. They can draw conclusions on who you are. We're hoping every single one of our clients [uses banner ads] by the end of the 2004 cycle. This is the big change in politics this year."
Just a year ago, banner ads were so seldom used that the American Association of Political Consultants struggled to find any to extol in its ''best banner ad/pop-ups" award category. Judges bypassed naming first-, second- or third-place winners and awarded only an honorable mention to the San Francisco firm responsible for banner ads in 2002 for Mark Leno, who credits the ads with helping him triumph in a tight race for a California State Assembly seat over former supervisor Harry Britt.
John Whitehurst of Leno's consultant firm, Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst, Lauter, and Partners, said his firm polled frequent local voters to determine what they read online and then posted ads on the sites of the San Francisco Chronicle and the alternative weekly Bay Guardian. The ad placements, which predated the current geo-targeting capabilities, were what Whitehurst called a ''reach-extenders," an inexpensive supplement to TV and radio advertising.
''In today's world of communications, you need to use a variety of media, repetitive contact with great repetition," Whitehurst said. ''If you can achieve that, you have successful communication. In 2002, this was new stuff."
It's not exactly well-worn in 2004, either. Candidates such as Gallagher are pioneering the effort under the direction of the Washington, D.C.-based political consultant firm Malchow, Schlackman, Hoppey and Cooper, who are among the first to add an Internet ad division.
The firm, which is creating banner ads for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, has three first-time Democratic congressional candidates using them.
''Compared to other media, it's a bargain," insisted Michael Bassek, head of the firm's Internet division. ''It costs less than a penny to deliver an ad impression online, and you know you're hitting the right people. To run a TV ad in Las Vegas costs around $90,000 for one week. Our buy, which was twice the length of that, cost less than half that."
The Gallagher camp used the ads with a TV campaign to introduce a little-known former casino executive. Campaign manager Josh Geise said 25,000 users viewed the campaign's TV ads by clicking on banner ads placed for three weeks in early July on Yahoo, AOL.com, CNN.com, and local TV station websites. By the end of that multimedia push, Gallagher had moved to 6 points behind Porter in the campaign's July poll, up from 27 points behind Porter in an April poll, Geise said.
Another Bassek client, Jamie Metzl of Kansas City, Mo., used banner ads to launch harsh attacks on rival Democrat Emmanuel Cleaver, a former Kansas City mayor. The tactic paid off. For $20,000 the campaign garnered local press attention and earned Metzl credibility as a legitimate contender against the heavily favored Cleaver in the Aug. 3 primary for the open congressional seat in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. The Kansas City Star, in fact, ran what is believed to be one of the first analyses anywhere of the veracity of an Internet ad.
''It was an early way to get our message out and get people talking about the race," said Metzl campaign manager Mike Murphy, whose team is skipping newspaper ads and will spend more on Internet ads than radio. ''This is the newspaper ad for the next century."
Some analysts are uncertain about the promise of banner ads, which online users often cite as an Internet irritant.
''People will use it because it's so inexpensive that everyone's going to try it out, but I'm skeptical of how anybody can measure its effectiveness," said Bruce Nelson, marketing professor at DePaul University and editor of the Journal of Political Marketing. ''So what if people click? A click on a computer indicates that there's some movement in the direction the banner ad wants you to go, but it doesn't indicate that the user is absorbing the information. It's becoming so annoying to have to deal with the ambient noise of your screen that it's difficult to know whether it'll have a significant impact."
Cornfield is less skeptical but said the medium has a lot to prove. ''We have no evidence that this stuff brings in great amount of money or votes," he said. ''This will explode when somebody comes along to show people how it works. But so far, nobody's figured out the formula yet."