The Obama campaign, and to a lesser extent its GOP rivals, has embraced the potential of the Internet age to reach possible supporters this election season.
The president’s campaign has bought Google advertising space next to all sorts of searches, including “Warren Buffett,” “Obama singing,” “Obama birthday” and, for basketball fans, “Obama bracket.”
The assumption is that people interested in those topics may also fit the profile of potential Obama backers, making them perfect targets for a strategically placed ad.
The president is not alone in this. Mitt Romney has bought advertising space next to his father’s name, for example, and Rick Santorum has gone for the term “Rush Limbaugh,” according to Hitwise, a company that samples Internet traffic. The ads are rotated on and off the search pages, and campaigns often purchase the ad space for short periods.
Spending for online ads
The Obama campaign is by far the most aggressive in trying to reach voters online, so far spending more on Internet advertising than on television, radio and telemarketing combined. And the president’s campaign has spent five times more on online ads — jumping from $2.3 million to $12.3 million — than at this point four years ago, when he was running against Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination, federal disclosure records show.
The president’s campaign, which would not discuss its Internet strategy, also is more aggressive in using technology that can track and target people based on the Web sites they’ve been browsing, a practice commonly used in corporate advertising.
The candidates are far from abandoning television, direct mail and other marketing strategies, but the competition to find supporters online has rewritten the book on campaigning.
“If you’re not advertising online, you’re missing out on a huge chunk of people and an ability to influence them,” said Tim Lim, a former field organizer for Clinton who runs Precision, an ad firm working with Democratic campaigns.
Still, the practice of tracking and targeting people by their characteristics and their behavior on the Web raises the spectre of intrusion.
“Your browsing and your purchase habits and even the activity of your friends on social networks will influence what a candidate says to you,” said Ashkan Soltani, an Internet privacy researcher who has consulted for the Federal Trade Commission. “It’s great to talk to folks about what they want to hear, but the problem is most people don’t know how deeply personalized it is.”
Consumer advocates for years have raised objections to the sharing of personal data among companies online. And the Obama administration has called for an online “privacy bill of rights” that would mean many of the techniques used by the campaign could soon require more transparency and opt-out provisions.