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Web Political Ads: A New Form of Direct Mail, Not TV

Not long ago, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) unveiled a Web ad that skewered President Bush. It wasn’t the first Web ad of the campaign, and Kerry isn’t the only candidate for office who has turned to the Internet to run ads that would normally be aired on television. [IMGCAP(1)]

At least two Republican Senate candidates, Georgia hopeful Rep. Mac Collins and Florida candidate Bill McCollum, have also distributed spots on the Web. Other candidates (both Republican and Democrat) for other offices (federal, state and local) are likely to follow suit.

But while newspapers write about these ads as if they were TV commercials and insiders exchange small talk about their content, the fact of the matter is that Web ads are unproven as political tools of voter persuasion. And voter persuasion is what TV ads are all about.

Last year, during the California gubernatorial recall and election, conservative-turned-liberal populist Arianna Huffington got more than her share of media attention from an ad that she aired on her Web site.

Huffington’s low budget ad drew attention even though it had little or no affect on the race, and even though Huffington was a factor in that race only in her own mind. Apparently, she meets some people’s idea of a celebrity, and that generated media attention for her “ad.”

While these ads look and sound like TV spots, and often receive the same kind of media coverage as TV ads, they really are closer to animated direct-mail pieces, according to some political consultants.

The ads are posted on a Web site, and the campaigns send out e-mail links to the ads. More often than not, the links are e-mailed to pre-existing supporters, so few independents or casual voters see the spots.

“They are a very fancy piece of direct mail, at a relatively low cost. All of the costs are in production,” says one political consultant who sees Internet ads as the most recent tool for targeting campaign messages to likely supporters.

But while some Web-savvy political operatives talk glowingly of the ads’ potential, other consultants are more skeptical of their impact.

“The people who watch the ads are a self-selecting audience,” says veteran GOP voter contact operative John Grotta. “Would I put my TV ads up on the Web? Sure, it’s free. How can it hurt? But so far Web ads haven’t won an election for anybody.”

Grotta, who has handled direct mail for dozens of candidates, argues that Web ads don’t have the feel or the look of a high quality direct-mail piece, and that they don’t look nearly as good as they do when they are aired on television.

For the moment, these ads look a lot more like a gimmick than an advance in campaign technology. In most cases, such an ad is aired on the Web instead of broadcast because the candidate doesn’t have enough money to put it on TV.

North Dakota Republican House candidate Duane Sand, whose bid against Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D) falls into the long-shot category, has a “webmercial” that is part bio ad, part fundraising tool and part gimmick.

The “ad” features a photo montage with Sand doing the voice-over. “I’m Duane Sand — and I’m running for Congress because our nation’s security is at stake,” he says as the spot ends.

“Visit our Web site. Help out. Contribute. I’m Duane Sand and I approved this message,” concludes the candidate, who has spent so much money raising campaign funds that he doesn’t have much to spend on his actual campaign.

Three things jump out as interesting. First, the disclaimer isn’t necessary because the ad is airing on the eb, not on TV. Using the disclaimer may be an effort to make the Web spot look more like a “real” TV ad.

Second, the ad urges people to visit the Web site. But the only way to view the ad, at least currently, is via the site, so people watching the webmercial have already been there. (The campaign isn’t planning to go on TV anytime soon, and the Internet ad may or may not ever air on cable or broadcast TV.)

And third, the spot ends with a fundraising pitch, not a “vote for me” pitch. This confirms the view that Web ads aren’t comparable to traditional TV spots in reach or purpose.

Last year, Huffington’s campaign manager crowed about the number of “hits” that his campaign’s Web site received, even suggesting that the ads make traditional TV spots less important for campaigns. Of course, there is no evidence of that, and Huffington’s poor showing in polls before she exited the race only raise questions about Web ads’ effectiveness.

I’m certainly not opposed to such ads, and they could well be an important part of campaigns in the future. But while they resemble TV ads in form, they don’t currently deserve to be covered as television spots. And since they are quickly losing their novelty, we may ultimately be spared mainstream media reports of them.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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