Political campaigns, which have borrowed tricks from Madison Avenue for decades, are now fully engaged on the latest technological frontier in advertising: aiming specific ads at potential supporters based on where they live, the websites they visit and their voting record.
In recent primaries, two kinds of Republican voters have been seeing two different Mitt Romney video ads pop up on local and national news websites. The first, called “It’s Time to Return American Optimism,” shows the candidate on the campaign trail explaining how this was an election “to save the soul of America.” It was aimed at committed party members to encourage a large turnout. The second video ad, geared toward voters who have not yet aligned themselves with a candidate, focuses more on Romney as a family man. Versions of the two ads were seen online in Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Kenneth M. Goldstein, president of the Campaign and Media Analysis Group at Kantar Media, part of the advertising giant WPP, said Romney’s directed ads represented a sea change in political advertising.
“Forty years ago, you’d watch the same evening news ad as your Democratic neighbor,” Goldstein said.
The technology that makes such customized advertising possible is called microtargeting, which is similar to the techniques nonpolitical advertisers use to serve up, for example, hotel ads online to people who had shopped for vacations recently.
In the past few years, companies that collect data on how consumers behave both online and off and what charitable donations they make have combined that vast store of information with voter registration records.
As a result, microtargeting allows campaigns to put specific messages in front of specific voters — something that has increased in sophistication with the large buckets of data available to political consultants.
Zac Moffatt, digital director for Romney’s campaign, worked with a company called Targeted Victory for the online ads.
“Two people in the same house could get different messages,” Moffatt said. “Not only will the message change, the type of content will change.”
Few campaigns like to talk about this kind of advertising. Representatives from the Obama campaign and the Gingrich campaign would not confirm whether they were using targeted ads tied to voter data. Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Republican National Committee on Technology, said he expected spending on digital political ads to reach 10 to 15 percent of campaign budgets in the 2012 election season.
Those numbers pale beside what campaigns will spend on television or direct mail. But the chief benefit of microtargeting is that campaigns can spend their money more efficiently by finding a particular audience and paying $5 to $9 per thousand displays of an ad, Anuzis said.
“We can now literally target the household,” Anuzis said.
Microtargeting is largely done by a handful of campaign consultant groups including Aristotle, CampaignGrid and Targeted Victory, which collect some of their data from direct marketing companies like Acxiom and Experian. The companies are reluctant to discuss which candidates are their clients, but according to a Federal Election Commission filing, CampaignGrid does work with the Ron Paul super PAC, Endorse Liberty.
The process for targeting a user with political messages takes three steps. The first two are common to any online marketing: a “cookie,” or digital marker, is dropped on a user’s computer after the user visits a website or makes a purchase, and that profile is matched with offline data like what charities a person supports, what type of credit card a person has and what type of car he or she drives. The political consultants then take a third step and match that data with voting records, including party registration and how often the person has voted in past election cycles, but not whom that person voted for.
Throughout the process, the targeted consumers are tagged with an alphanumeric code, removing their names and making the data anonymous. So while the campaigns are not aiming at consumers by name — only by the code — the effect is the same. Campaigns are able to aim at specific possible voters across the Web. Instead of buying an ad on, say, The Miami Herald website, a campaign can buy an audience.
Another advantage is that these ads can be bought quickly — using an auction process to obtain ad space — when campaigns need to move rapidly to aim at an audience, for example, to counter a bad debate performance or an unflattering newspaper article.
“If you can get in front of a news story, if you can help frame the debate rather than respond to the debate,” Anuzis said, “that makes a big difference.”
John Simpson, media director at Blue State Digital, which worked with the Obama campaign in 2008, said bidding technology means strategists can “get a campaign up and running very fast and also potentially pull it down very fast.”
In 2009, Chris Christie, then a candidate for governor in New Jersey, worked with CampaignGrid to respond to accusations from Gov. Jon S. Corzine that he supported cutting healthcare coverage including mammograms. In response, Christie’s campaign quickly created a video ad showing him sitting at a kitchen table with his wife and telling the story of his mother’s struggle with breast cancer.
It was aimed at female Republican voters who were searching for information on breast cancer.
“It’s awful for the governor to try to desperately hold on to power by scaring people,” Christie said at the end of the video.
Mike DuHaime, a partner at Mercury Public Affairs who ran Christie’s campaign, said of the ad: “I think the biggest thing in politics is just being able to move quickly. I don’t know if it won us the campaign, but it kept us from losing.”
When Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana was running for re-election last year, his campaign used a number of ads with different messages. Blaise Hazelwood, the president of Grassroots Targeting, the company that worked on Jindal’s campaign, said voter registration data was critical to the success of the digital campaign.
“We want to hit the people who can actually go out and vote,” Hazelwood said.
The digital campaign ran in September and October and the company placed ads online to reach registered Republicans as well as registered Democrats. There were more registered Democrats in the state, and early polling had shown that some were “favorable toward Jindal,” Hazelwood said.
Critics say the ability to limit political messages to registered voters toes the line of social discrimination. Daniel Kreiss, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, called some of the targeting techniques a form of political redlining.
“These practices, as they get more sophisticated, leave entire segments of the population out of the political communication of the campaign.” Kreiss said, adding that “campaigns aren’t going to spend resources on people who aren’t seen as being important.”
Professor Joseph Turow of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania said ads aimed at registered voters, while efficient for the campaign, benefited the candidate in another way.
“Different people getting different ideas about a candidate maximize the chances that a person would agree with you.”