The candidate is sitting in a conference room, surrounded by strategists and media consultants. A large screen lowers from the ceiling, and one consultant leans forward, telling the candidate, "This is the ad that's going to win us the election!" On the giant screen, the front page of Yahoo loads, and the candidate's streaming video ad plays to astounding applause.
Sound implausible? It is right now, as American political consultants remain skeptical of the Internet as a medium that can sway voters, and enthralled with the power of TV advertisements. The past successes of John McCain (R-Ariz.) and MoveOn.org in raising money online -- and the recent buzz created by Howard Dean's Internet efforts -- has made the Net a required stop for organizing and campaigning. But advertising? Not yet.
Separately, online advertising and political advertising -- mainly on TV -- are booming. Online advertising saw a rebound in 2003, according to Jupiter Research, which estimates the market grew 10 percent to $6.3 billion, while predicting a 21 percent rise to $7.6 billion in 2004. And political TV ads in federal, gubernatorial and judicial elections in 2000 cost a whopping $672 million, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, with congressional races alone increasing a third over '98 levels.
But candidates have been slow to take up online advertising so far, mainly due to their risk-averse nature and long experience with TV ads moving favorability polls. Michael Cornfield is research director for the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet, and author of "Politics Moves Online" (Century Foundation Press), due out next month. He said he is not surprised that political ads have stalled in moving online, despite their advantages in targeting, customization, instant feedback and more.
"Most political campaigns have found it just too complicated to put an online ad buy into their budgets," Cornfield told me via e-mail. "They can buy a TV ad with a phone call; the rate card is in their hands; they have a rough sense of how many gross rating points they need to buy to assure that the ad gets seen. With online ads, in contrast, the absence of routines and rules of thumb plunges them into chaos. What do they want: branding or direct response? What type of ad should they commission and place: pop-up, banner, rich media?"
Democratic presidential candidates have so far dabbled in paid search ad buys and some minor targeted advertising on media sites, but most of the American public has likely not seen these ads. Jerome Armstrong, a blogger who's in charge of Howard Dean's online ad buys, told me that only 1 percent to 2 percent of Dean's ad buys were online so far.
Christine Mohan, spokeswoman for New York Times Digital -- including NYTimes.com and Boston.com -- said political ad revenues for the last quarter ending in December were "in the single digits" of percentage of all ads sold -- and flat from the Senate and House races advertised in the first quarter of 2002. And Slate.com, which prides itself on incisive political commentary, tallied less than 1 percent of revenues as political ads in December and January, according to publisher Cyrus Krohn.
Still, many online publishers believe that this year will be a breakthrough for online political ads as politicians finally understand the size and strength of the online audience -- and the possibility of finding swing voters in key states.
A recent Pew Internet study found that 24 percent of Internet users regularly learn news about the presidential campaign from the Internet, while 28 percent get election news from major portals, such as AOL, MSN and Yahoo. If these people are just bumping into political news online, why wouldn't ads in those places get their attention as well?
Jason Krebs, vice president of sales and marketing at NYTimes.com, said that consultants are starting to get the message about the power of online ads. Plus, he can point to one strong testimonial from a high-ranking official in New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration. "[He] did state that advertising on NYTimes.com, and our ability technically to target messages according to where the readers are coming from, was incredibly instrumental in his victory," Krebs told me. "We're proud of that."
NYTimes.com and other top sites with user registration have the ability to target ads based on ZIP Codes, age, gender and other demographic information. That means a candidate could reach women aged 35 to 45 in a particular district in the Bronx. "There were some people in different districts and burroughs that [the Bloomberg campaign] needed to reach a little more heavily with a slightly different message than others," Krebs said of the mayoral campaign two years ago. "We were able to offer that in a compelling form that was easy to deliver." However, he would not reveal how much was spent on online advertising by Bloomberg or the other candidates.
Another big advantage for the online medium is that it won't be subject to campaign finance limitations this year, which pertain to so-called "soft money" ads. These ads are banned from TV and radio in the last 60 days of the campaign. Many online publishers are expecting a big influx of ads during the time leading up to the November election.
Cliff Sloan, general counsel and vice president of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, said he was confident that 2004 would see an upswing in online political ads, and that he expected a surge of ads on the Net and on washingtonpost.com. Sloan wrote an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times making the case for candidates buying online ads.
"Consultants are hired to win, not to experiment, no matter how loud the drumbeat."
-- Ray Strother, Democratic consultant
"Consultants are comfortable with the way they have done campaigns and are not eager to try something new," Sloan told me. "Corporate advertisers and their agencies similarly were skeptical two years ago. But in the end, they did not want to lose the advantage to their competitors. That's why, as with the use of other media, the gap between the political world and the corporate world will close in the months ahead. There's no other choice."
The case for inertia
Despite predictions that this could be a breakthrough year for online political advertising, other political veterans are not so sure. Krohn, the publisher of Slate, has a background in politics and worked in the first Bush White House for Vice President Dan Quayle. "I'm a little frustrated at the pace at which the political industry is adopting the medium," Krohn told me. "At this stage of the game, the belief is that the medium is only suited for one-way dialogue -- money coming in, and not marketing messages going out."
Krohn said that with each example of a candidate raising millions in cash online -- including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) pulling in a quarter million overnight after winning Iowa -- the perception of the Net as a cash cow becomes cemented in place. Consultants are so focused on winning the race in front of them, they have precious little time to test a new medium for their message.
"The traditional political consultant will never tell you this, but there may be a little fear of the medium," Krohn said. "They don't have experience with it. They're uncomfortable with it. The political community is probably more conservative than any other industry."
That theory bears out in my discussions with political consultants. Those who "get" the Net are having trouble winning over those who don't. The Dean campaign's Armstrong has had to struggle for attention within a campaign that made a name for itself thanks to the Net.
"I'm the only one that works on the Net [advertising] campaign," Armstrong told me. "A lot of times I have to farm out a volunteer to do the creative for the [online] ad. Campaigns are not evolutionary models. They're what works now and will get us through the next election. Institutional memory skips every four years, so there's a lag time on innovation. As far as big purchases that really make an impact -- we're not there. We're able to push the envelope to do some of this, but I don't have nearly the resources as the people doing television ads."
Armstrong said that Dean has been advertising on some media sites such as NYTimes.com, as well as doing paid links through Google AdSense -- where links run alongside relevant articles. However, the campaign is still focused on getting the most bang from the least amount of bucks. They are running a streaming video ad on AOL and CNN.com that's repurposed from a TV commercial. Armstrong, however, would not say how much the Dean campaign has spent on online advertising.
One old-school Democratic consultant, Ray Strother, has yet to be convinced. Strother helped mentor Clinton strategist James Carville and was a past president of the American Association of Political Consultants.
"Communications dollars are limited and must be spent carefully," Strother told me via e-mail. "We are beginning to dribble advertising onto the Web. However, there is no independent research yet that proves it works -- or with whom. Consultants are hired to win, not to experiment, no matter how loud the drumbeat. Contrary to what people think, people don't make their decisions on candidates in the same way they buy peas or even Fords. I am pro-Web and would love to put my candidates on it. But I can't gamble their lives on it."
Touch it, feel it
While Net advocates can tick off numbers on ad effectiveness, branding awareness, and the like, political consultants and candidates are more interested in something they can touch and feel. Strother noted that, "I have used the Web to advertise candidates and I have yet to have a person stop me in the airport to tell me how much they liked it. Not so with television and radio. The Web is just another medium. It is not magic. It is a tool."
Larry Purpuro founded the Rightclick Strategies consulting firm three years ago after leading the e.GOP Internet effort for the Republican National Committee, where he was also deputy chief of staff. Purpuro said that political consultants are extremely slow to try new things, but that the online publishers aren't making the sales any easier because "they don't know how to talk politics."
Purpuro told me that publishers need to create a physical way for clients to see the ads so that campaign managers and candidates and wives and volunteers can see how they work. "The difference with a TV spot is you can send a TV spot on a videocassette to a candidate and he can watch it in the privacy of his living room with his family, and they can all google over the 30-second bio piece," he said. "It's very difficult to present online ads. It sounds trivial, but they [need to] find a good way to capture them and show a whole lot of samples."
One other problem is that consultants spend millions on TV ads to get results in polls showing better favorability ratings for their candidates. They don't make the same connection to Net ads, even if these ads do it better at a cheaper cost.
Jonah Seiger is a longtime political consultant and visiting fellow with the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet. Seiger told me that consultants were caught up in a apples-to-oranges comparison between TV and the Internet for advertising.
"There's shorthand among media strategists and pollsters: 'Pump an extra thousand gross ratings points into a market, and we'll see an X percent bump in the unfavorable/favorable ratings,' " Seiger told me. "We don't have a similar lexicon yet for the Internet. There's a difference in the bottom line measure. With traditional media, there's an attitudinal measure, how public opinion has changed, but there's no direct response measure. Internet advertising from the very beginning was sold as a direct response medium. It creates somewhat of a trap."
Until there's a way to make political consultants comfortable with the Internet as an advertising vehicle, it will continue to languish as a back-room experiment. Or maybe all it would take is one bold, risk-taking candidate to finally push big money online and win. Then everyone else will follow like a herd of raging elephants and donkeys.