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Politicians Slow to Embrace Web

By Scott Lindlaw
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 1998; 3:11 p.m. EDT

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- When it came to advertising, gubernatorial candidate Al Checchi spent with abandon, pouring millions of dollars into a statewide TV, radio and mail blitz. But when a salesman peddling World Wide Web ad space approached his campaign, Checchi declined.

``It was a very intriguing idea, but we would have been breaking new ground, and there just wasn't a lot of interest in putting money into this,'' said campaign manager Darry Sragow, who also rejected a proposal to e-mail campaign ads to voters.

While corporate America has begun to embrace Internet ``banner'' advertisements that usually appear at the top of Web pages, politicians have been slow to see the potential in going online.

That's true even in hyper-wired California, the home of Silicon Valley, a state where campaigns are waged primarily through advertising, and a place that is usually in the political and cultural vanguard.

``Politicians are behind the eight ball,'' said Michael Tchong, editor of Iconocast, an Internet marketing newsletter. ``They listen too much to their moneyed constituency, who tend to be older and also less Net-savvy.''

Their reluctance comes despite the fact that e-mail and Web advertising offer so much of what politicians crave: It invites users to interact with advertisers, responses to ads can be tracked precisely, and users tend to be highly educated and likely to be voters, too.

Banner ads are usually flashy, horizontal advertisements. Clicking on one with a mouse will often take a computer user to a whole new Web site.

Since the first banner ads appeared 3 1/2 years ago, spending on Net advertising has increased to $900 million last year, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau. Yet the first banner ads for political candidates are just appearing.

DoubleClick, an Internet ad network, said that in April it distributed the world's first Web candidate spot -- for New York attorney general candidate Evan Davis -- in advance of the September New York primary.

In the days before California's June 2 primary, state Sen. Tim Leslie ran banner ads in his successful bid for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor.

``We got a lot of bang for our buck,'' said campaign spokeswoman Jane Barnett, citing increased traffic on Leslie's Web site and a surge in voter e-mail. ``I think it's something every campaign needs to do.''

But Checchi, a former airline executive who spent some $40 million on his campaign and lost the Democratic nomination to Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, wouldn't even give it a try.

``There's no doubt banner ads or some variant thereof will become a common method of advertising,'' Sragow said, ``but at this point, no one knows what an investment in this particular medium would accomplish.''

Consultants and political observers agree that Net advertising is the next big thing in promotional politics.

``Not in this election, but for the next presidential election, the next couple of elections, they'll be ready for it,'' said Ben Isaacson, a vice president of the Washington-based Association for Interactive Media.

Internet and political experts say the rise of political advertising on the Internet will parallel technological advances in ``targeting,'' a marketer's ability to tailor the message to a narrow audience.

Companies are often willing to risk missing their targets. But a politician who does so can do himself irreparable harm.

``If you're advertising for Lands' End and you run an ad that doesn't appeal to 50 percent of viewers, all you're doing is wasting money,'' said John Aristotle Phillips, president of Aristotle Publishing, which supplies Internet advertising. ``If you run an anti-abortion spot that offends viewers or gets out the vote you don't want, you're not just wasting money, you're losing the election.''

Unsolicited e-mail, or ``spam,'' can be especially risky.

Candidates in Orange County, Calif., and North Carolina recently sent unsolicited e-mail ads to thousands of recipients, infuriating many of them.

A San Francisco consultant who had planned to dump 500,000 copies of unsolicited e-mail recommending certain Democratic politicians changed his mind at the last minute when the candidates began to fear a backlash.

``It's such an intensely stupid thing to do, because you're going to annoy people who would vote for you,'' said Jason Catlett, head of the junk e-mail watchdog group Junkbusters. ``It's simply counterproductive and indicates the candidate has no idea what he's doing.''

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