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Coming Soon to a Computer Near You: Gigabytes of Politicking

Cliff Sloan is general counsel and a vice president of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, which publishes washingtonpost.com and Newsweek.com.

At least since Joe McGinnis’ classic book “The Selling of the President,” about the 1968 presidential campaign, it has been a staple of conventional wisdom that political campaigns and consultants borrow the best techniques of Madison Avenue.

But with the rise of paid advertising on the Internet, there has been for some time now a conspicuous gap between the political world and the corporate world. Even though online advertising has become a settled part of the media strategy of mainstream companies and advertising agencies, it has remained a relatively isolated phenomenon in politics.

That is about to change dramatically. All indications are that as the 2004 presidential race gets underway in earnest in the months ahead we will see an explosion of paid political advertising online.

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling on campaign finance may be the spark that ignites the fire of online political advertising. The McCain-Feingold law bans corporations, unions and interest groups from using certain funds on behalf of a political candidate in the period shortly before an election, but the ban applies only to TV and radio. The court upheld this ban and rejected claims that it impermissibly favors the Internet. But even without this advantage, the case for online political advertising would be extremely strong.

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In 2003, we witnessed the unprecedented use of the Internet as an effective tool for political organizing and fundraising, particularly by the Howard Dean campaign. It’s only a matter of time before campaigns realize it will do the same for advertising.

The facts about corporate adoption of online advertising are overwhelming. Despite the boom and bust of the Internet bubble, total online advertising in 2003 exceeded $6 billion. Online advertising at leading media sites has jumped almost 40% this year. During the heat of the Internet craze, fly-by-night Internet companies were spending heavily on Web advertising. Now, the big spenders are hotels, car companies, insurance companies, airlines, retailers and on and on through the largest sectors of the economy.

The reasons are simple and straightforward. More than 140 million Americans are online. Many use the Internet at work. Daytime is prime time for the Internet. Internet advertising allows the advertiser to reach people at an important time of day on a scale that no other medium can match.

Online advertising also offers unique opportunities. In an age of fragmented television audiences and increasing use of commercial zappers such as TiVo, online advertising reaches a user who is on-task at his or her computer screen. Many sites gather enough demographic information about their viewers for ads to be precisely targeted by ZIP Code, age and gender. There is no waste in parts of the market that are not the target.

Internet ad types have changed dramatically. Innovations such as “big boxes” and “skyscrapers” now are common because they are highly effective. One breakthrough for online advertising was the recognition that the value of online ads was not simply, or even primarily, the number of people who “clicked through” the ad. Instead, as with other media, the primary value of the ad is persuasion -- its ability to deliver a message to viewers whether they click on the ad or not.

I predict that in the coming election season, viewers will be regularly seeing political ads on the Internet. When you go to any high-quality news and information site, chances are you will see a large, colorful political ad integrated into the page you’re viewing or perhaps even a video ad that is the same high quality as a TV ad. And the ad probably will be far more targeted at your personal interests than a typical TV or radio ad -- aimed at your community, or at young parents, or at working women.

Imagine the benefit of this for the Bush campaign or the Democratic nominee. Concerned about 10 key states? Target a flood of online ads on the ZIP Codes and demographic groups that may tip the balance there. Facing a gender gap? Target online ads directly on the gender you’re trying to reach.

Online ads will be especially appealing to the political community because they can be put up quickly and changed on the fly, even allowing a response in real time to breaking news or an opposing candidate’s charges.

Notably, studies have shown that Internet users overwhelmingly vote, contribute and get involved in campaigns.

Despite all these advantages, there is some resistance in the political community to online advertising. Consultants are comfortable with the way they have done campaigns and are not eager to try something new. Corporate advertisers and their agencies similarly were skeptical two years ago. But in the end, they did not want to lose the advantage to their competitors. That’s why, as with the use of other media, the gap between the political world and the corporate world will close in the months ahead. There’s no other choice.


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