Online Advertising

Originally posted on and written by Karen A.B. Jagoda

The two most common elements of an online campaign tend to be e-mail and a Web site with rich media and plenty of interactivity. The third and least developed leg of an online political campaign is online advertising. This article will answer questions about political online advertising strategies and explore how online advertising can target highly desirable audiences during parts of the day that are otherwise impossible to buy or prohibitively expensive.  These “day parts” are subsections of the broadcasting day, used to determine the cost of advertising on a radio or television program. 

Moreover, online advertising can be used for reinforcement as well as persuasion, by bolstering fund-raising and get-out-the-vote messages received through other media. 


Who used online ads in 2003? 

According to Nielsen//NetRatings, Howard Dean and John Kerry were the first Democratic candidates in the 2004 presidential election to advertise online, with John Edwards following their lead a few months later.

In June 2003, Kerry’s campaign placed ads on Yahoo!, asking people to participate in an online primary being held by The Dean campaign followed in August with a series of ads on MSNBC that asked people to sign up to stay connected to his campaign.  This particular media buy consisted of two sizes of ads: standard horizontal banners and skyscraper vertical banners.  The landing page (the page where they “landed” after they clicked on the ad) include a passionate plea for people to join the Dean campaign by entering their contact information.

In October and November 2003, John Edwards became the predominant online advertiser among the presidential hopefuls., and MSN were among the sites used for by Edwards to help him educate voters about his stand on key issues.

In the 2003 California recall race for Governor, Garrett Gruener led the way with online ads.  Gruener, a co-founder of the popular Internet search engine Ask Jeeves, spent nearly $400,000 of his $1 million budget on paid search, online ads and e-mail appeals to gain name recognition and support. He advertised on many of the local California newspaper sites, such as the, (the San Jose Mercury News site) and, a San Diego Union Tribune property.  When asked why he advertised online, he said, “I don’t know if it was more effective than TV but we did not have the budget for TV.  I know we drove a lot of people to our site.”

What accounts for candidates’ and consultants’ delay in embracing online advertising?

Many political strategists dismiss the Internet as a communications medium because they think the Internet does not reach the “right” people.  For them the Internet is seen as a tool for the younger generation who do not vote in the same numbers as, say, retired union members.

In a recent column in the New York Times, Frank Rich described the out-of-date reputation of the Internet among politicians:

In Washington, the Internet is still seen mainly as a high-velocity dissemination of gossip (Drudge) and rabidly partisan sharp shooting by self-publishing excoriators of the left and the right.  When used by campaigns, the Internet becomes a synonym for ‘the young,’ ‘geeks,’ ‘small contributors’ and ‘upper middle class,’ as if it were an eccentric electronic cousin to direct mail fundraising run by acne-prone members of a suburban high school’s computer club.  In other words, the political establishment has been blindsided by the Internet’s growing sophistication as a political tool—and therefore blindsided by the Dean campaign.

This is consistent with a 2003 survey by the E-Voter Institute of political and advocacy communication leaders, which showed that the biggest hurdle to using the Internet is that people believe it is not a “reach medium” and cannot be used to target specific voters.  

At the same time, the E-Voter survey revealed that there has been a significant jump in interest levels regarding political online ads.  Perhaps candidates and consultants are beginning to take heed of the Internet population surveys published by Nielsen//NetRatings. According to a survey they conducted in the summer of 2003, 144 million adults 18 or older have been online in the last 30 days—a number almost as high as the estimated 150 million registered U.S. voters.  Among these online American adults, the Internet is increasingly becoming the most trusted source for news and information. Though many surf the Internet while watching television, studies show that hours spent watching TV are dwindling as people have more choices for getting information.

Is the Internet a persuasive advertising medium?

Persuasion comes in many forms.  It happens when people are persuaded to give money to a campaign, or send their e-mail address for future communication from the candidate, or even change their mind about a candidate or issue.

Politicians have long understood the persuasive nature of television and radio ads, yard signs and volunteers handing out literature or walking around the neighborhood. They also understand the ability of cable television ads to deliver targeted messages to specific audiences. 

None of these modes of communication, however, give the viewer or listener a direct and immediate way to respond to a call to action, ask for more information or send money to a campaign.  

But an online ad can turn persuasion into action. While a television commercial can tell you that a candidate needs your help, only an online advertisement can send a viewer directly to a Web site that accepts credit cards. A radio ad can fire you up to spread the candidate’s message, but only an online ad lets you forward the message to your friends.

What is actually bought in an online media plan? 

There are a number of ways to buy real estate on Web sites in locations that will reach desired viewers.

• Paid Search – Internet search sites such as Google, Yahoo!, AOL and Microsoft’s MSN have seen a jump in interest in paid searches.   Ads are served up when visitors use a search engine to look for information about a candidate, race or issue.  It is a way to connect with the core audience who has already identified themselves as interested and who are looking for information.  Ads that appear in these environments are seen as less intrusive and more helpful than other forms of online ads.

Overall spending on the paid search market (on all kinds of advertising, not just political ads) was expected to reach $1.6 billion in 2003 and is projected to reach $4.4 billion by 2008, according to New York-based Jupiter Research, which tracks Internet trends.  The advantages of this type of advertising are that it is clear that the viewer is interested in the specific topic addressed by the ad, the results are measurable and costs are relatively low.

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