Microsoft is using your data to target political ads on Xbox Live

Microsoft is trying to persuade politicians to take out targeted ads on Xbox Live, Skype, MSN and other company platforms as midterm elections begin heating up around the country. To plug the idea, Microsoft officials handed out promotional materials Thursday at CPAC, the annual conference for conservatives.

It's the latest move by tech companies to seize a piece of the lucrative political ad market. The ads, which would appear on the Xbox Live dashboard and other Microsoft products, combine Microsoft user IDs and other public data to build a profile of Xbox users. Campaigns can then blast ads to selected demographic categories, or to specific congressional districts. And if the campaign brings its own list of voter e-mail addresses, Microsoft can match the additional data with individual customer accounts for even more accurate voter targeting.

The image of white male teens as the stereotypical average gamer is something of a myth; Microsoft says that of its 25 million Xbox Live subscribers in the United States, 38 percent are women. Forty percent are married, and more than half have children. Those numbers are important, because they represent key demographics that are among the most contested in political races. Microsoft is particularly aggressive in selling its ability to reach women, Latinos and millennials; across the company's other platforms, such as MSN, Microsoft has developed consumer categories like "Ciudad Strivers" and "Nuevo Horizons" that attempt to describe a set of characteristics including age, type of residence and income level. At a time when virtually all politicians are resorting to microtargeting, this technology could help Microsoft become a major player in the advertising space.

Multiple Microsoft officials declined to comment for this story.

You could say this effort is one direct result of Microsoft's longstanding attempt to conquer the living room. Although pay-TV providers have been capable of doing targeted advertising for some time, it was only recently that satellite TV companies made it possible for political campaigns to test targeted ads on any large scale.

Microsoft has made successful pitches to political campaigns before. In 2012, President Obama agreed to advertise on Xbox Live for his reelection campaign. The effort sparked some complaints among Xbox users who disliked the ad appearing on their dashboards. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, meanwhile, opted not to participate. Obama has also advertised within games themselves. With the release last year of the Xbox One, it's safe to expect Xbox Live to become another important platform in the political ad wars.

RELATED: How the wall between Microsoft and Xbox came down

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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Brian Fung · March 7