Victory Lab

The Creepiness Factor

This could have been the election when Web-based advertising changed everything. What happened?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Direct mail and door-to-door canvassing is still more targeted than political Web ads. Why?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

For a generation now, a campaign manager has been able to select a list of, say, 100,000 names to receive a pre-election get-out-the-vote reminder and feel confident that the reminder will reach only those 100,000 voters—and not their neighbors. The voters’ addresses can be delivered to a mail vendor (who merges them onto glossy leaflets) or placed on a walk list (which a field director hands to canvassers), or the voters’ telephone numbers can be given to a phone vendor (whose call centers will reach them with live operators or by robocall).

This year, for the first time, campaign managers in races of all sizes will have a new option: individual-level targeting of Web ads. In this scenario, there is a crucial intermediate step. The 100,000 names selected for targeted communication are then matched to Internet cookies, which allows a campaign to buy ads on only those pages visited by its targeted voters. This represents one dimension of the most important innovation of the 2012 election cycle: the ability to match an individual’s online and offline identities. It means that campaigns can now target voters wherever they are, even if they’re at their vacation home for the summer or spend most of their online time in corners of the Internet where people do not typically seek out political content. As a result, individual targeting marks a crucial step in the maturing of the Web from a media platform and forum for fundraising and activist organizing to a corridor for direct voter contact.

But even if campaigns have finally acquired the technical capacity to target Web ads with the precision of mail or a door-do-door canvass, they are not using it that way. While political advertisers can specify which 100,000 individual voters they would like to reach, only a small fraction of those voters maintain a large enough online footprint to actually be targeted. If they wanted to, the campaigns could learn which of their 100,000 targets actually saw their ads, and which didn’t. But spooked by a furor over online data collection by consumer advertisers, major political players are voluntarily refusing that information. As a result, online targeting is lagging in efficiency behind more traditional methods: A campaign manager knows the names of targets who were unreachable by a phone vendor’s call centers, and can send them an extra mailer instead. He gets a list of which doors went unknocked upon by his canvassers so the voters living there can be targeted to receive robocalls. But political advertisers have shut themselves off from the analogous online information: The Obama and Romney campaigns do not find out which voters were actually delivered their ads, according to those familiar with each campaign’s targeting practices.

Indeed, conversations with the consultants who sell these groundbreaking individual-level online targeting services are notable for the fact that they seem to devote less time in their pitches to claiming they can match the efficiency of offline methods than they do offering assurances about how respectful they are of the online advertising industry’s self-regulating standards on obscuring personally identifiable information, known as PII.

“In terms of campaign strategy, the PII rules are onerous and out-of-step with the norms of voter contact,” says Chris Talbot, who as a Google account executive in 2008 guided the Obama campaign in its online-advertising placement and now has his own consulting firm that advises Democrats on digital strategy. “Any citizen would tell you it’s silly that campaigns use massive amounts of personal information—including your party and voting history—to call your house during family dinner yet they can’t use that info to serve you a banner ad while you’re reading”

Even though this type of we-know-who-you-are surveillance is widely accepted as part of our political culture, it has become taboo among marketers. They have imposed standards on their own industry that enshrine consumer privacy as a way of pre-empting government regulation. (Last month, the Federal Trade Commission released a report on online privacy that applauded efforts by an industry umbrella group, the Digital Advertising Alliance.) The rules, requiring that users be clearly warned or given the chance to opt out if their PII is being collected or shared, were a minor concession by consumer advertisers. After all, as long as a commercial marketer knows that ads are reaching someone in the target audience—say, a rural man between the ages of 35 and 54 for a truck ad—it doesn’t quite matter the specific identity of the person who sees it, and it’s probably irrelevant which side of a county line the viewer calls home. 

But that is crucial information to political campaigns as they seek to shift their broadcast and direct-mail budgets onto the Internet. In 2010, one of the stories in the Wall Street Journal’s “What They Know” series on online data collection focused on the San Francisco-based firm RapLeaf, which helped clients—including 10 campaigns that year—deliver targeted ads to individual voters using cookies matched to email addresses (which had been scraped from social-media networks). The firm built targeting profiles resembling those long employed by direct-mail firms. For example, there was the 67-year-old New Hampshire woman whom RapLeaf’s databases had accurately presented to a Senate campaign as a Bible-reading Republican supporter of environmental causes. Many online advertisers analyze individuals’ online behavior when placing their ads, but RapLeaf drew particular attention because its cookies had real names and ages attached to them.

The backlash was furious. RapLeaf has since quit the political business to focus on consumer clients, according to competitors. (The company did not respond to a request for comment.) Firms that have emerged to fill the void—like CampaignGrid, which has worked with the Republican National Committee and at least one presidential campaign and super PAC this year*, or Democratic competitors DSPolitical and TargetSmart Communications—have moved beyond what RapLeaf was able to do. Each has access to a national voter file, which means that they have far more geographic reach, and a greater ability to synthesize the political information that campaigns collect about voters with profiles of their online behavior.

CampaignGrid last year completed assembly of a 170-million-record database, and works with an outside cookie-matching intermediary, which tracks voters across 60 Web networks that drop cookies on their sites. The accuracy of cookies tends to vary by site: Those acquired by retailers tend to be better, since a man may call himself Wayne Gretsky and use a fake age when he signs up for an account but at Zappos typically has his user name and address validated against credit-card information. When a campaign client pulls a list of voters it wants to reach online—say, a universe of independent men to send a persuasion message, or of reliable Republicans to send a get-out-the-vote reminder—CampaignGrid locates their records in the voter file and has the outside cookie-matching service look for them online. Voters who are located are then tagged with cookies that give them unique numerical markers and basic demographic categories but contain no personally identifiable information.

Meanwhile, at CampaignGrid’s suburban Philadelphia headquarters, buyers on a “trading desk” purchase display and video advertising inventory across nine different Web-ad exchanges that executives say give them access to 4 million sites. When a targeted voter journeys onto a Web page where CampaignGrid has purchased inventory, the cookie triggers a specific ad to appear. Advertisers can cap the number of impressions each voter sees, so a campaign that would develop a direct-mail plan with a flight of six pieces over three weeks can set the same parameters for its Web ads. Targeting through a voter-file match—as opposed to buying by site or category—can increase the price clients are willing to pay for political ads, according to CampaignGrid CEO Jeff Dittus, from as little as $1 for 1,000 impressions to as much as $15.

Not every voter can be successfully reached this way, however. CampaignGrid officials say they can find good cookies for up to 110 million of the voters in their file. (The remainder don’t use the Internet enough to have been assigned cookies, regularly clear their Web cache, or identify themselves in inconsistent ways—like a woman who goes by Marge in her Zappos profile but Margery on her voter-registration form.) Of that 110 million, one-half do not regularly visit the sites on networks where CampaignGrid has purchased inventory. As a result, only about one-third of a universe of targeted voters can typically be served ads during a conventional multiweek campaign.

But the campaign that buys the ad never finds out who saw the ads and who didn’t. When reports on their advertising campaigns come back to political campaigns, they see only aggregated numbers: a total number of ads served, a number of unique voters who saw them, and an analysis of the broad demographic categories carried on cookies. To compensate for those who went unreached, a campaign needs to then use less precise, more intuitive tactics: If the reports show younger men didn’t see the cookie-targeted ads, buy display ads on NASCAR sites. Most of the executives and buyers at CampaignGrid are new to political targeting—Dittus was a pioneer in the development of televised infomercials—so not knowing the names of specific people who see your ads is no significant loss. “It’s an exact match of what’s done in the commercial world applied to politics,” says Richard Masterson, an early digital-marketing entrepreneur who co-founded CampaignGrid.

Yet campaign work is about collecting, analyzing, and using personally identifiable information. PII doesn’t exist in politics: Courts have exempted electoral communication from restrictions on telemarketing like do-not-call lists, and unlike in many European countries, American regulators place few restrictions on data collection or marketing intended to profile voters. The Federal Election Commission has even taken steps to explicitly encourage campaigns to distribute personal data they’ve collected on voters and donors, by creating exemptions to campaign-finance rules to allow swapping of mailing lists.

The different standard that has developed online is not a principle agreed upon and adopted by political operatives, but a default acceptance of the practices of cookie-matching developed for corporate marketers. “People who are collecting, using, and sometimes distributing data are acutely aware of this issue of ‘the creepiness factor,’ ” says Daniel McInnis, a attorney specializing in consumer-protection law at Akin, Gump. “The data brokers and online advertisers are just trying to push for industry-driven voluntary rules that will address whatever these concerns are.”

But modern political campaigns are based on the tactic of reminding voters how much personally identifiable information they have about you, with a blithe disregard for concerns about creepiness. That ring interrupting your family dinner is, after all, just one link in a chain of relatively transparent data collection and monitoring. A stranger knocked on your door and asked you questions about your views on sensitive moral questions and what you plan to do on a secret ballot. If you gave the right answers, one of the stranger’s colleagues now calls you days later to let you know that, because of the answers you gave, they’re happy to send a van to your house the following Tuesday to drive you to the polls.

By holding themselves to the corporate world’s standard, politicians are not only crippling their ability to make the Web an equal player in campaign voter contact but accepting the premise that you deserve more privacy online than you do off.

Update, April 27, 2012: Since the firm’s executives were interviewed by Slate, CampaignGrid has reorganized itself under the holding company Audience Partners. The Pennsylvania office from which employees purchase web inventory is today Audience Partners’ headquarters, and Jeff Dittus is the CEO. In addition, the company now claims it can locate cookies for 130 million US voters. (Return)