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SHEFFIELD: Candidates use Web for cheap, edgy ads

- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION

ST. PAUL, Minn.

In the American federalist system, states have become policy proving grounds, places where ideas can be tested and elevated to the national level if proven effective - "laboratories of democracy," as Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once put it.

Watching this year's presidential race, a similar trend appears to be emerging with the Internet.

With the Web as a medium having come into its own in the consumer space - 73 percent of Americans now regularly use it according to the Pew Internet and Public Life Project - it now seems to be developing into a useful tool for political campaigns to push new messages, gauge the sentiment of supporters and to tap into themes that resonate with the public.

This makes sense from a marketing standpoint for a variety of reasons, perhaps foremost because of the costs involved. Producing Internet videos and Web sites is astonishingly cheap, compared to creating and placing television advertisements, generally because TV stations charge large amounts of money.

Because paying for a Web site is cheaper, this also means the risk of failure is much less. If you've spent $200,000 creating an ad and intend to drop about $2 million on distributing it through prime television markets, chances are you're going to be a lot more cautious in doing it.

Caution is certainly a good thing, but too much of it isn't. That's why most politicians' ads you see on television tend to be boring, one-size-fits-all affairs that manage to say nothing while still taking up your time.

That's ironic because one of the main points behind advertising is to get the public's attention. You want the public to be talking about your ads.

This is especially true at the presidential level since the American media market is so huge that, aside from spending tens of millions, it's impossible to get the word out without assistance from journalists and bloggers voluntarily talking about your ads to their audiences.

It's a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg situation: Campaigns want the public to know about their ads, but they don't want them to be too controversial or too expensive.

Resolving this dilemma has been one of the biggest challenges in campaigns, one which the Internet appears to be helping to solve this year by allowing campaigns to create advertising that is cheap and sufficiently edgy to attract attention from the chattering class (ensuring media amplification) but also insulated enough that poor advertisements never affect the more apolitical public.

Of late, it's been the McCain presidential campaign that has been doing this more effectively. In the past month or so, the McCain camp has released several hard-hitting ads, including "The One," a spot that mocked many Democrats' overly high expectations of their presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, and his campaign's message that only he can bring the mythical "change" we so desperately need.

Since its release, the ad has been getting enormous amounts of attention all over traditional media, a great return on Sen. John McCain's initial investment.

Besides demonstrating how the Web can be cost-effective, "The One" phenomenon is illustrative of another way the Internet has become useful for the presidential campaigns: helping them spot organic political themes that they can help develop into larger ones. The inspiration behind the ad is straight out of the conservative blogosphere where it has proven enormously popular with center-right readers long dissatisfied with the elite press' love affair with Mr. Obama.

That inspiration isn't restricted to just online ads, either. Just this week, the McCain camp released an ad that looked astonishingly similar to a parody ad created by blogger Ed Driscoll, which combined Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's famous "3 AM" ad with a second segment telling viewers that Mr. McCain also could be relied upon to respond to a crisis situation.

It's highly likely this will continue to happen, Mr. Driscoll told me in an e-mail.

"While a campaign still has to spend large sums of money buying advertising time on TV, as the older generation still glued almost exclusively to the television tube begins to fade away, watch for the Web to continue to grow in power as the political advertising venue," he said.

He's exactly right. It's simply a matter of time.

Matthew Sheffield is a Web consultant and creator of NewsBusters.org. E-mail: msheffield.times@gmail.com.