One of the events we political Web-watchers were waiting for has arrived: Serious presidential candidates have begun advertising on the Internet. George W. Bush’s campaign is now running several different interactive banner ads targeted to Web users in early primary states, including one for voters in New Hampshire that allows viewers to calculate how much they would save under Bush’s tax plan. (Click here to see the tax-savings banner.) John McCain ran banners soliciting volunteers to circulate ballot petitions for him in Virginia last month. (To see these ads, click here.) Today McCain announced another Internet ad campaign touting his support for a permanent moratorium on Internet taxation.
The Bradley and Gore campaigns are likely to follow suit with banner ads of their own. But before these ads become as commonplace as 30-second TV spots, it’s worth considering a few of the issues they raise.
Privacy: Both Bush’s and McCain’s banner ads were developed by Aristotle Publishing, a political firm that maintains up-to-date voter lists and sells them to campaigns for use in various kinds of voter targeting, from direct mail to door-to-door canvassing. Aristotle has recently developed an Internet application. It cross-references its voter information with data collected by portals, Web sites, and Internet service providers. By sifting such information together, the company believes it can surgically target clusters of voters of special interest to candidates–such as, say, married women in their 30s who are registered as Republicans in New Hampshire. Both Bush and McCain have been using Aristotle’s method of targeting banners for their pilot Internet ads.
But this sort of targeting raises an ethical question: Should a person, by virtue of registering to use a certain Web site, become the involuntary recipient of political propaganda? Jay McAniff of Aristotle says his firm relies on what is known as “permission-based marketing”–that is, it only uses information offered voluntarily, not the kind gained passively on the basis of “cookies” (click here for Michael Kinsley’s explanation of cookies). And the McCain and Bush campaigns both say they won’t resell or otherwise use the information collected from people who click on their ads.
But even if all are scrupulous about what they do with user data, there’s something Big Brother-ish about being bombarded with ads based on information you’ve given for another purpose. Imagine if your television was able to gather details about your viewing habits and your personal life and then transmit that data to companies that wanted to use it to sell you things. You might find it pretty creepy. With e-mail spam or old-fashioned direct mail, at least the recipient knows that someone is marketing something to him with the help of data that someone else sold. With banner ads, targeting can be invisible.
Disclosure and Fairness: Bush spokesman Scott McClellan told me that the campaign’s banner ads have run on some 1,500 Web sites, including Yahoo, Excite, and CNN.com. But McClellan declined to give any more specific information about the ad buy for “strategic reasons.” McCain’s campaign couldn’t provide the names of any of the Web sites where it was advertising. Aristotle Publishing isn’t even willing to divulge the name of the company that actually places its banner ads on Web sites.
If we were talking about conventional TV or radio advertising, all such information would be a matter of public record. According to federal law, stations have to maintain open books showing who spent how much on political advertising. This assures compliance with Federal Communications Commission rules designed to secure equal access to public airwaves. Mandatory disclosure means that WMUR, the leading TV station in New Hampshire, can’t give Steve Forbes a volume discount without offering the same deal to Forbes’ rivals. But these FCC rules haven’t yet been applied to the Internet, and it’s not clear they can be. Portals and ISPs don’t use the public airwaves, and they don’t need broadcasting licenses.
There’s a widespread and largely sensible aversion to the mechanistic application of existing campaign-finance regulations to the rapidly evolving medium of the Internet. But the TV-Internet disclosure disparity is hard to justify in principle and points to potential abuses down the road. As it is now, Web companies not only have the ability to provide diabolically precise demographic targeting to political campaigns, they can also make such offers exclusively. Yahoo could theoretically offer its entire inventory of New Hampshire Republicans through Feb. 1 to the Forbes campaign at a premium price. This would be unfair to the other candidates–and if done on television or radio, entirely illegal. But a campaign lawyer I spoke to for this story said he couldn’t see what would prevent it on the Internet, so long as Yahoo charged at least the going rate for the ads.
Effectiveness: Of course, we’ll only need to worry about issues of fairness and privacy if banner ads are seen by political campaigns as working. The Bush people say the results of their effort aren’t in yet, but they’re optimistic and expect to stick with Internet advertising. The McCain campaign has more specific evidence of success. According to spokesman Dan Schnur, 192 people clicked McCain’s Virginia banner ads, some 2 percent of those who viewed the banners. This isn’t a bad response rate, though it means the overall campaign was tiny–just 10,000 ad impressions. But of the 192 people who clicked, Schnur says nearly half followed through by circulating petitions for McCain. An ad buy that probably cost less than $1,000 prompting nearly 100 people to volunteer in person–that’s true interactivity.