Tuesday, October 7th, we read “A Research Agenda for the Effects of Online Political Advertising: Surveying Campaign Practice, 2000-2012” by Daniel Kreiss and Lisa Barnard. This paper walks us through the development of online political advertising in presidential elections from 2000-2012. Each election utilized new online political advertising techniques.
Kreiss and Barnard refer to online advertising in 2000 as a, “nascent stage,” which marked the beginning of online political advertising (12). No one industry specialized in online political advertising. Campaigns in 2000 were, “generally limited to running banner ads on sites such as AOL” (12).
Just four years later in 2004, however, online political advertising made significant strides with the Howard Dean campaign. Kreiss and Barnard write, “The Howard Dean campaign…made initial forays into online search and banner advertisements using the interactive, video, and graphical platform Flash, and it generated backend data metrics tracking the effectiveness of ads” (12). Not only had the campaign moved away from the simplicity of banner advertising, the Howard Dean campaign actually tracked the effectiveness of their online political ads—something that hadn’t been done in 2000. The 2004 Dean campaign also launched its own website, DeanforAmerica.com, and tracked “how many people coming to the site from the online advertisements made financial contributions,” also something that had not been done in 2000 (13).
Also in 2004, during the general election, the John Kerry campaign developed what Kriess and Barnard called, “the most extensive online advertising program in Democratic politics” at the time (13). With the help of MSHC Partners and Michael Bassik from the Dean campaign, the Kerry campaign found the Interactive Marketing division of MSHC (13). MSHC Partners was the largest direct mail firm in the country at the time, and they noticed that during the primaries, young people were not opening their mail (13). MSHC Partners turned to the Internet for a solution, and they developed a new division of MSHC that dealt specifically with the Internet, online marketing and advertising (13). This was the, “first dedicated online political advertising team in Democratic politics” (14). According to Bassik, “we don’t care what the ads say as long as these ads generate a return on investment” (14). Though the Kerry campaign marked many innovations and goals in online advertising, fundraising was the chief goal of online political advertising during the 2004 Kerry campaign (13).
The 2008 Obama campaign built on what had been established in 2000 and 2004. The Obama campaign also created a website, BarackObama.com, and its goal was to garner funds and volunteers (15). Rather than outsourcing the campaign’s Internet operations like the Kerry campaign, the Obama campaign, “decided that the…online advertising program would be handled in-house” (15). Campaign staffers produced all of the ads and decided on the placement of those ads. There were three objectives for online advertising during the 2008 Obama campaign: “build a robust supporter base,” “voter mobilization,” and “persuasion,” which was the majority of the campaign’s online advertising expenditures (15). The 2008 Obama campaign revolutionized online political advertising for presidential campaigns. The campaign used advertising to increase sign-ups to the email list, drive traffic to the Obama website, garner donations, get-out-the-vote operations, volunteer recruitment, and even included an application known as “tax cut calculator” so individuals could calculate how much he or she would save under Obama’s proposed plan (16). One of the key aspects of the 2008 Obama campaign was only mobilizing individuals who were likely to support Obama. One of the way the campaign did this was by ranking individuals on a scale of 0-100 based on public data collected from “local, state, and federal records, including information such as party registration, voting history, political donations, vehicle registration, and real estate records…supplemented with…information such as magazine subscription records, credit histories, and even grocery ‘club-card’ purchases.” This personalized and targeted way of advertising was revolutionary. This type of voter modeling helped the campaign to better identify and target its supporters, but it also raised privacy concerns, which were further exacerbated in the 2012 presidential campaigns.
Kreiss and Barnard write, “Campaigns have also expanded the matching practices…where the browsing histories of known supporters of a candidate or political party are used to find other computer users with similar browsing behaviors whose information may not already be part of the voter file. Campaigns look at what voters read online, what content they share, and where they leave comments to find other users like them; the idea being that similar browsing behaviors may reflect similar voting behaviors” (21). Though, “the Obama and Romney campaigns say they are not looking at individual-level results regarding which voters actually viewed ads online and which did not…they receive aggregated results,” the access to information about individuals raises privacy concerns for some (22).
In the New York Times article, “Campaigns Mine Personal Lives to Get Out Vote” written October 13, 2012, Charles Duhigg writes,
“In the weeks before Election Day, millions of voters will hear from callers with surprisingly detailed knowledge of their lives…with access to details like whether voters may have visited pornography Web sites, have homes in foreclosure, are more prone to drink Michelob Ultra than Corona or have gay friends or enjoy expensive vacations” (1).
These “callers” are campaign volunteers, who may be friends, friends-of-friends, or long-lost work colleagues, Duhigg writes (1). These callers are likely to ask “detailed questions” about how voters plan to spend Election Day—“What time will they vote? What route will they drive to the polls?” (2). Duhigg writes, “Simply asking such questions, experiments show, is likely to increase turnout” (2).
Using information and data about the personal lives of voters is intended to influence voting habits—get people to the polls to vote. However, the sheer fact that the Obama and Romney campaigns had access to information about the personal lives of voters raises privacy concerns for many people. In the Times article, Adam Fetcher, an Obama campaign spokesman, said, “We are committed to protecting individual privacy at every turn – adhering to industry best practices on privacy and going above and beyond what’s required by law” (3). Still, simply knowing this information about individuals is concerning. For example, “consultants to both campaigns said they had bought demographic data from companies that study details like voters’ shopping histories, gambling tendencies, interest in get-rich-quick schemes, dating preferences and financial problems,” Duhigg writes (4). Additionally, Duhigg writes, “The campaigns have planted software known as cookies on voters’ computers to see if they frequent evangelical or erotic Web sites for clues to their moral perspectives. Voters who visit religious Web sites might be greeted with religion-friendly messages when they return to mittromney.com or barackobama.com” (5). This type of look into people’s personal lives is supposed to help campaigns target their messages to supporters and voters, and help the campaign get people to the polls to vote for that particular campaign’s candidate on Election Day. Is it not enough for a candidate to adopt an authentic and genuine persona so people will vote for him or her? Not anymore, it seems. After reading the Times article and the paper by Kreiss and Barnard, it is clear that political campaigning, specifically online advertising, is more intricate and complex than ever before.
I appreciate the information Kreiss and Barnard examined in their paper, “A Research Agenda for the Effects of Online Political Advertising: Surveying Campaign Practice, 2000-2012.” I was surprised to find out that both the Obama and Romney campaigns had access to such personal information of people’s lives. Whether or not the campaigns utilized individual or aggregate data, it is still startling to realize just how personal and particular their data was.
For those of you who have taken classes in advertising and marketing, do you find that some of the techniques used in the Obama and Romney campaigns were similar to the way companies use marketing? I know I have taken classes that show how specialized and individualized marketing techniques can be. Is commercial marketing less invasive than targeted, online political advertising? No, but I think people are used to their political preferences, voting behavior, and voting history being somewhat private and personal. When we go to the polls, we’re typically alone in a little room, behind a curtain, or standing in a three-walled box while we cast our vote. Election Day is supposed to be private—no one is supposed to know for whom you voted, unless you share that information. It is certainly a startling fact to realize that four years later, we may receive a phone call telling us about our voting behavior in the previous election, isn’t it? That is, of course, after they tell us what kind of TV shows we watch and where we like to shop online. Though the callers won’t know for whom we specifically voted, will our Internet browsing history reveal information about our personal preferences that will lead them to a conclusion? It’s certainly possibly, depending on what you search and click. The overall point is that political advertising reaches far beyond issue-ads or grassroots campaigning—campaign volunteers and staffers are targeting us directly, armed with information about our personal lives, preferences, and behaviors.