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Can Internet Political Ads Replace TV?

Writing in Slate, Chris Suellentrop points out that political communication on the Internet, unlike radio, television and newspaper advertising, is completely unrestricted by the McCain-Feingold reforms or other campaign finance laws. The requirement to use only hard (that is, limited) money for ads that mention a candidate by name in the weeks before the vote explicitly do not apply to the Internet, and even the longstanding prohibition on coordinating such spending with the candidate or the party has been held by the Federal Election Commission not to apply in the case of internet communications.

Suellentrop is right about the law. And this is not accidental. I wouldn't even call it a "loophole," because the purpose of campaign finance reform is not to restrict all the avenues by which money enables politicians to communicate with voters. In part, the exception is a result of our de facto industral policy under which we treat the internet as a delicate flower, and anything related to it is shielded from the normal constraints on business, such as taxes and regulation, for fear that the blossom will be snuffed out before the spring. But it also shows a recognition that political communication on the Internet has a somewhat different character than broadcast communications, and that money therefore affects it in a somewhat different way.

To be specific, what led to the passage of McCain-Feingold was really a certain kind of television ad that might best be characterized as a hit-and-run. Soft money committees, whether quasi-independent groups or the non-federal committees of the Democratic or Republican Party were running ads featuring ominous tones, dark suggestions, strange accusations, and concluding "call Congressman Jones and ask him why he loves taxes and thinks criminals should go free." These ads operated by indirection on many levels. Of course they didn't expect you to call Jones and, assuming you could get him on the phone, ask him whatever ridiculous question was on offer. The message, polling showed, was indistinguishable from campaign ads that said "vote against Jones." But there is also the likelihood that the intent of these ads was actually not to increase votes against the poor sorry pinko Jones, but simply to reduce turnout. The waters would be poisoned, voters would have a general impression that there was something bad about the candidates, and they would stay home, usually benefiting the incumbent.

These hit-and-run ads were targeted to a certain kind subset of citizens: those who might vote or might not, do not seek out information about politics, and do not have strong party loyalties. Constant repetition of a negative message (or a positive one, sometimes) in the background of television or radio entertainment and other broadcasts can seed doubt or disgust, which might make them decide not to vote at all or possibly switch sides. In a closely divided nation or state, these passive and almost fully disengaged voters can make a difference.

The other effect of soft money for broadcast ads, which exaggerated their impact, is that broadcast time, especially in the key time slots, is a finite resource. In hot races, a well-funded candidate's own ads, combined with a lot of soft money ads, could dominate the key slots, leaving an underfunded opponent almost shut out.

We know the internet is a great political tool. It's perfect for engaging voters who do seek out information about politics. It is a great organizing tool, it is a great fundraising tool because it reduces the transaction costs of the second and third "ask" to zero, and it is a great way to build a deep message for a candidate. It is also a good advertising vehicle, in part because of its extraordinary ability to deliver a message targetted demographically: Want to reach pro-choice women or environmentalists? It's easy to find people who seek out information on women's issues or the outdoors.

But can the internet do the thing that soft money did? Can it deliver multiple impressions of video or audio, to voters who are not going to click on a link, and who are not going to political sites or issue sites? Are the loose and passive voters targetted by soft money ads even likely to be active internet users? I am continually amazed when I learn about the ability of on-line advertising to get to people -- for example, did you know that voter lists can be matched with e-mail addresses for about one-fourth of the population? But I think it will take a lot of creativity to find people who are doing the online equivalent of watching The Bachelor and force them to watch 30 seconds of video about a candidate, and then do it again and again to get the three impressions that are needed. Maybe I'm wrong, I don't know. (Because I use the Mozilla browser, I never see a single pop-up ad, so I'm the internet equivalent of the person who only watches public television.)

Suellentrop declares that the advantage of the internet is that, "On the Internet, you can run things that look like TV ads," but the example he uses is the National Rifle Association's new news site . But that site -- as you will see if you click on it -- is nothing at all like a TV ad, except that it has moving pictures. It is a registration-required site for people who actively seek out information from the NRA. That's nothing at all like the kind of people targetted by soft money.

And the other aspect of broadcast ads -- the finite space -- is plainly less of an issue online. There is no online equivalent of the 8:10 timeslot in the most popular primetime show. My targetted ad does not have to displace your targetted ad. Plus, the ads are inexpensive compared to TV time. So imbalances of money don't matter as much, another reason to exempt internet communications.

The great thing about the internet for politics is not that "it looks like TV," but that it doesn't. It is not a zero-sum game like TV, it is not passive like TV, and it allows people to gather as much or as little information as they want about the choices they have to make. Much of that potential for political engagement has not yet been fulfilled, and if campaigns and interest groups really do take advantage of it this year, if only because it is less restricted than broadcast, then perhaps we will hurry the day when the era of internet politics replaces the era of TV politics.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 29, 2004 | Permalink


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It's an inescapable fact that a presidential nominee has to have a vice presidential nominee, though many would have been happy to do without. But there is no reason Kerry has to use the traditional selection method, which is only slightly more democratic than the British monarchy.

Win or lose, he could contribute to a lasting improvement in our political system by devising a better way.

Fourteen vice presidents have gone on to the presidency, including nine who ascended when a president died or resigned. As John Adams, the first person in the job, noticed, "In this I am nothing, but I may be everything."

We could wake up tomorrow to find President Dick Cheney taking the oath of office.

But the Constitution doesn't say we have to leave the choice entirely to the nominee. Kerry could offer a list of candidates he considers suitable and let the Democratic convention delegates take it from there. Or he could let the delegates nominate three or four possibilities and then make his choice from that list. Or he could announce that he'll turn it over to the convention and invite aspiring veeps to campaign for the job.

Any of these would give the voting public a vastly greater role than it normally has. It would also have some advantages for Kerry himself, such as attracting favorable attention--after all, who could possibly object? It would also allow him to contrast his open, inclusive approach with the secretive, Machiavellian style of the incumbent vice president. It could win strong public approval.


Adapted from Steve Chapman's article in the Chicago Tribune April 25, 2004

Posted by: aRuss | Apr 29, 2004 6:31:06 PM

The future - long term future - of political ads on the net is very, very bright.

In the long run (15-20 years for good penetration?) we will have video on demand, and the currently fractured broadcast and cable audiences will be split even further.

Thus there will be a greater multiplicity of outlets through which you could reach targets with advertising. There will be many stations, and one-off producers of content - but also the ability get video ads to people through email via individuals' previously expressed interest in hearing about certain issues either directly from candidates or advocacy organizations. E.g. AARP members might get messages with little video teasers from a range of candidates on senior issues. There will be clutter - but content will be cheap to produce.

So many possibilities. Imagine a little window at the top of The Decembrists' page with a 15 second ad running in it. (Remember, in the future bandwidth will make this easy.) Click it and get longer versions. Then, customize your path to learn more. It will be easier than ever to inform (or dis-inform?) citizens with video.

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Apr 30, 2004 3:34:53 PM

I am not as hardcore punk as Mark is, so I dont have Mozilla, or even Firefox.

But I do have a Yahoo! toolbar, which blocks pop-up windows quite well. I believe Google has a similiar toolbar.

I think there are a lot of people who aren't seeing the mass advertising online.

There is spam, of course, but a solution would be had before too long, I would think. The internet works best for getting active dedicated people: mailing lists, blog reader, news junkies.

Posted by: mister jingo | Apr 30, 2004 10:03:24 PM

I see an interesting future for internet political ads. For example, the data on the targeted advertising the some internet firms do (e.g. Google ads that are related to the searches you do) seems to suggest that people do pay more attention to such ads. If, in the future, a person's web browsing becomes even more tracked, I suspect this can be used effectively by both parties. For example, if someone notices that I read a lot of articles on Medicare reform, read vaguely liberal/centrist blogs, etc, the party could target me with an issue specific ad or plug for money.

I think this would even work with the voter described as "may or may not vote". S/he would still browse the news and could again be targeted about issues they (seem to) care about. With enough data, one could even work out rough socio-economic status, geographical and other demographic data to further target message.

Alas, this requires heavy data-mining and a large loss of privacy. But, given corporations' desire to make a buck, I suspect it will happen anyway.

Posted by: Scott Pauls | May 1, 2004 9:48:32 AM

I think the real danger with internet ads in the 2004 election cycle is the corresponding press release.

Suppose Senate candidate Joe Smith releases an add on the internet, and couriers a videotape of the ad to every local news station in his state. Some number of them will run a story "Joe Smith, running for Senate, released a new internet ad today" and proceed to run the ad. This gives Smith free airing of "news" related to his campaign, which is probably worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars, and allows him to get a hit-and-run ad in that is. And he doesn't even need "I'm Joe Smith, and I approved this message".

AFAICT, there's nothing preventing the NRA, Sierra Club, moveon.org, or anyone else from doing this.

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Posted by: mohammed | Oct 9, 2004 5:32:02 AM

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