"People in the Internet advertising space constantly ask 'when is the offline world going to start looking at the Internet as a viable advertising vehicle'," said Michael Bassik, a former ad executive at AOL and now vice president of Internet advertising at Malchow Schlackman Hoppey & Cooper in Washington, D.C., a firm that buys advertising for the Kerry campaign. "The answer is it will happen when it becomes easier to run an ad."
"The problems I've had in placing ads go to the inherent subjectivity of the 'we know it when we see it' acceptable content policies," said Jonah Seiger, co-founder of Connections Media in Washington, D.C., a media consulting firm for Democratic campaigns. "Having to redo a political [ad] spot the day before it is supposed to run can be operationally very difficult if you are trying to target a vote in Congress and running the ad across a large number of sites at the same time."
John Durham, president of Pericles Consulting, bought banner and video space on approximately 60 Web sites in April for a Bush-Cheney ad featuring First Lady Laura Bush.
"We had some sites that took the ads only to return two days later and say they don't want to be in the political ad business anymore," Durham said. "Political ads aren't like selling soap or cars. People are going to get emotional when they see them and in some instances they're going to get pissed off. I don't think any of us fully understand the implications of running political ads in such a personal, intimate space and how that's going to be accepted by the user."
If predictability is what the online political advertising sector craves, it may soon arrive in the form of greater oversight from Congress, according to several election law experts. Some expect that a surge in online attack ads in the next few months could bring greater scrutiny from federal regulators.
"If it turns out that large sums of corporate and labor money are being spent for advertising through the Internet, then I think you'd have the same issues before Congress than you did with radio and TV," said Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and general counsel for Sen. John McCain during the Arizona Republican's 2000 presidential bid.
From March until the end of May 2004, the Kerry and Bush campaigns spent roughly $400,000 apiece on Internet ads, according to TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group. That's a lot more than the $100,000 total that some experts estimate was spent in the 2000 presidential race, but it trails far behind the $155 million that Bush and Kerry campaigns have spent on TV spots since March.
Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said the wild card will be the content and volume of ads on smaller Web sites that cater to specific demographics and political interests.
"My suspicion is [Congress] will revisit regulating Internet ads as the ads get nastier and more money is spent on them," Noble said. "I think the Internet is going to be the perfect place for really negative ads on targeted Web sites as this election cycle moves forward. If that happens, this medium will be practically begging for regulation."
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) already have introduced a bill that would impose the "Stand by Your Ad" requirements on Web sites that already apply to TV and radio. That provision requires candidates to include an audio and/or visual statement of personal responsibility for the ad in order to qualify for the "lowest unit rate" for any broadcast ad that refers directly to the candidate's opponent.
"I think the 'Net is going to be the venue of choice for hitting below the belt," Wyden said in an interview. "It is just the ideal kind of venue for doing a quick and dirty hit and then getting the heck out of Dodge before anyone can figure out where it's coming from and who did it."
Wyden said that candidates who put campaign material online should be just as accountable for those ads as they are for ads on radio and television.
Michael Zimbalist, president of the Online Publishers Association (whose members include washingtonpost.com and the Wall Street Journal Online), said that accountability is something that responsible news Web sites can provide for themselves.
"At least on our member sites, people are exercising some appropriate self-governance," he said.