Lots of Politics on the Web, but No Political Ads

By: Steve Outing

It’s election eve in the U.S., and if you’re an American who’s turned on the television in recent weeks you’re probably sick and tired of the flood of political commercials. For a respite, you could have gone to the World Wide Web, where political ads are virtually non-existent (unless you count candidates’ ubiquitous Web sites, which are the Internet equivalent of TV “info-mercials”).

It’s not for want of trying on Web publishers’ parts. Most would love to have taken politicians’ money, but most were unable to convince fiscally conservative political campaign directors to try out a new medium. Throughout the U.S., campaigns pumped money through the usual promotional channels: television, radio and direct mail.

And it’s not that the Web has ignored politics; quite the contrary, actually. News organization Web sites are brimming with campaign coverage, voter guides and interactive ballots. The advancing technology of the Internet is being put to the test on election night, as Web news publishers are trying out new technologies to offer voters instant results, often personalized down to a voter’s individual political districts. (For a rundown of what’s out there, to guide you around the Web on Tuesday night, see Christopher Harper’s column elsewhere on the Editor & Publisher Interactive Web site.)

Political site, sans political ad money

If any Web site was going to succeed luring political advertising, it might have been PoliticsNow, the premier U.S. political site. But according to executive editor Evans Witt, the only ad the site attracted was an anti-Proposition 211 (California) placement, which is seen on some national as well as California pages of PoliticsNow. (Prop 211 is a controversial tort reform ballot initiative.)

Witt blames the “relative newness” of the Web and the “inherent conservativeness” of political campaigns for the lack of political advertising placed on Web sites. “We knew it would be an uphill fight to get campaign money this time around,” he says. Particularly troublesome is that campaigns are used to getting big audience numbers, and are less attuned to the concept of targeting narrow groups of voters, for which the Web is ideal.

Witt thinks that the next U.S. election in 1998 will be a different story, and the site is banking on getting some political ad revenues then. Currently, the site could target ads by placing them on pages covering regional or state politics. By ’98, PoliticsNow is likely to offer greater targeting opportunities for political ads, probably by requiring user registration.

Most of the larger newspaper Web sites that I surveyed for this column reported that they were not able to attract any political ads, including sites like the Los Angeles Times and WashingtonPost.com. The San Jose Mercury News in California did get an anti-Proposition 211 ad, which is in its general Mercury Center Web site ad rotation.

Another Web site that got Proposition 211 ads was Yahoo!, the popular Internet directory and search service. According to Yahoo! director of brand management Karen Edwards, both pro and con sides of the 211 issue have placements on the site. But that’s by Yahoo!’s design. Edwards says Yahoo!’s policy is that it will accept a political ad only if the opposing campaign also agrees to take out an ad, providing balance.

Edwards says that Yahoo! feels that it has a “responsibility” to remain objective, since it has such a huge user base. “This is similar to a television network,” she says, “so we make sure we represent a broad range of views.” None of the news organizations operating on the Web that I contacted for this column had such “balance” policies in place; most said they would like to have run political ads but couldn’t get them.

‘We went hard at them’

At DoubleClick, a Web advertising network that places ads on multiple Web sites, national sales director Dave Henderson said political ads were hard to come by. The only ones were some Proposition 211 ads (again!) that DoubleClick placed on some California Web sites, and during the Republican convention earlier this summer the Republican National Committee put a “few dollars” into a Web test buy via DoubleClick.

“We went hard at them” but national campaign finance directors wouldn’t bite, says Henderson, who has worked in the campaign advertising world in the past and has good connections. Let’s face it, he says, Web publishers don’t yet have the penetration to get to the numbers of voters that campaigns are looking for. But check back in four years, he says, when the Web has 40-50% penetration of U.S. homes — a mass audience — and campaigns will put money into Web placements.

Over at Real Media, a DoubleClick competitor that places ads primarily on newspaper Web sites, they had even less luck. Senior vice president Myles Fuchs says he hit up the ad agencies of both the Democrat and GOP presidential campaigns, but they passed in favor of a nearly entirely TV ad campaign. This time around, the company didn’t focus on luring regional political ads, but expects to during the next U.S. elections.

Newspapers themselves don’t typically attract many political ads, so it might not concern some publishers that their Web sites likewise are not attractive to campaign directors. But Web site political advertising actually is a potentially lucrative future revenue source. The Web could be a big part of the political process in the 2000 election, because candidates can use it to target distinct demographic groups.

Radio is the politician’s second most favored ad medium. Many campaigns use it not only to target geographic regions, but for specific types of voters. Yahoo!’s Edwards points out that both the Dole and Clinton campaigns placed competing ads on many Christian radio stations, hoping to influence the religious community. The World Wide Web, by contrast, provides countless more opportunities for targeting specific voter groups and demographics.

Politicians missed out on the Web as an advertising medium this time around. Next election, if Web publishers do a good job of educating campaigns on the potential benefits, it should be a different story.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company.

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Published: November 4, 1996


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