The presidential ad war online is beginning to look more like a skirmish.
A new survey of online advertising by President Bush's and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry's campaigns found that both candidates have spent relatively little on relatively benign ads.
The study, conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, found that the Kerry campaign spent three times as much on Web ads as Bush in the first eight months of this year. But the candidates' expenditures together totaled less than $1.8 million, a pittance compared with either of their television advertising budgets.
"This is the dog that didn't bark," said Michael Cornfield, a senior research consultant at Pew and author of the report. "Where are the online ads?"
The findings are surprising, given the burgeoning number of Americans online -- more than 100 million each month -- and the increasing number with access to high-speed Internet connections. To be sure, both candidates' online ad campaigns were far more extensive than anything seen during the 2000 election. But they seemed modest compared with the campaigns' efforts in other areas of online politicking, such as Internet fundraising, e-mail and voter profiling. "The experimentation which we see in so many other areas of the Internet is just not going on here," Cornfield said.
The survey, which will be released today, also suggests that the White House contenders have very different strategies for reaching voters online. The Bush campaign directed many of its ads at women with children and voters in swing states. Nine of its top 20 Web sites are based in battleground states, including those for KPTV, a Fox television affiliate in Portland, Ore.; El Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald's Spanish edition; and KPHO, a television station in Phoenix. Seven others targeted women: Parents.com, ParentCenter.com and Ladies' Home Journal Online, among them.
Bush's campaign spent the bulk of its advertising dollars on its initial buy in May, for a spot starring first lady Laura Bush. Between then and August, the report said, his campaign spent relatively little.
The Kerry campaign, which has focused much of its advertising on raising money, preferred sites that reached Democrats in metropolitan areas and those of national news organizations. The campaign's top 20 sites included those of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Village Voice, both major Seattle newspapers and the LA Weekly, an alternative newspaper in Los Angeles. Eight others were major news sites, including Newsweek.com, CNN.com and Reuters.com.
Both candidates' efforts were supported by similar campaigns by the national parties. The Republican National Committee spent nearly $500,000 on the ads, while its Democratic counterpart spent a little more than half that. Other groups that have launched numerous television spots, such as the independent "527" organizations, named for the section of the tax code that covers them, have largely ignored online advertising. MoveOn.org Voter Fund was the most aggressive of those groups, spending approximately $100,000. In all, the report said, the candidates and parties accounted for more than 90 percent of the estimated $2.7 million spent on presidential ads online.
The ads were not noticeably more negative than ones found in other media, the report said -- belying concerns that the less regulated, more difficult-to-track world of online advertising would give rise to a parallel universe of especially hard-hitting attacks. "Although parts of the online world are a public 'wild West' where few standards of taste, civility, and accuracy prevail, political advertising on the Internet has adhered to mass media standards of political discourse," the report said.
The survey, billed as the first systematic study of presidential ads online, is based on data collected from more than 2,000 Web sites. It did not include "keyword" ads placed on search engines, ads in the subscription sections of America Online's sites or the often-biting videos candidates and the parties post on their Web sites.
Cornfield said the candidates and parties might ramp up their online ad campaigns. "The closer we get to the Election Day, the harder it is to spend on television because the ad times are locked down," he said. "There could be a rush of online ads towards the end."