It has come to this: Pop-up video attack ads on instant messaging software. The ads are part of a noticeable ramp-up in Internet political advertising that some Web sites report in the last days before Tuesday's election.
Arlington resident Chris Stammer discovered the latest flavor of electronic attack ads when he signed onto his AOL Instant Messenger program last week and saw an image of Sen. John Edwards above his list of messaging "buddies." A video started in a pop-up window, showing the Democratic vice presidential candidate's face while a female voice said, "Personal injury lawyers like John Edwards get rich, but you pay the price."
Stammer was not happy, especially when the 30-second commercial replayed every time he relaunched the AIM application. "I am all for adware," Stammer said, "but the video short was politically polarized at worst and annoying at best."
The pop-up video debuted on AOL on Sept. 24 and was bought by an advocacy group called the November Fund. The ad, still viewable from the group's Web site (www.thetruthabouttriallawyers.org), will run until Tuesday. It appears to have been the first political video ad to run on America Online's instant messenger software, according to AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein. AOL started selling what it calls "buddy video" advertising earlier this year.
November Fund spokeswoman Shelley Hymes said one reason the ad is running on AOL is that campaign finance laws forbid advocacy groups that accept corporate contributions from mentioning candidates by name on TV.
The November Fund is hardly alone. Political advertising in a variety of formats has increased sharply across AOL over the past month, much of it targeted to users based on their Zip codes and demographics, Weinstein said.
Web ads are still a tiny drop in the political marketing bucket, according to a Pew Internet & American Life Project study released in September. It reported that Web ads made up less than $1 out of every $100 in advertising spent by all presidential candidates, parties and advocacy groups from January to August -- just $2.66 million in all.
But Michael Cornfield, the George Washington University political scientist who wrote the report, said Friday that Democrats have ramped up their Web spending. "The Democratic National Committee in September and October has placed ads on at least 102 Web sites," he said. While Cornfield had no fresh dollar estimates, he said a program that automatically inspects Web sites found 10 times more Democratic ads in October than in September.
Cornfield still sees this as an experimental year for Internet political ads. But also interesting, he said, are the thousands of unpaid political videos that have popped up online during this presidential campaign.
MoveOn.org, for example, drew more than 1,500 submissions to a contest inviting people to create 30-second anti-Bush ads (www.bushin30seconds.org). The most popular Internet parodies were two animated cartoons that lampooned Bush and Kerry (www.jibjab.com). The first drew more than 10 million visitors in July alone, according to market researcher ComScore Media Metrix.
You can watch an assortment of both paid and unpaid Web video ads at two online archives: George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet (www.ipdi.org/videolibrary) and the New York-based American Museum of the Moving Image (livingroomcandidate.movingimage.us).
The ultimate ads, of course, are the sites representing the candidates. Both the Bush campaign site (www.georgewbush.com) and Kerry's (www.johnkerry.com) drew more than 2 million visitors apiece last month, according to ComScore. A report from ComScore shows they have traded the lead twice since June, with Kerry's site ahead -- for now.
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