September 29, 2004

First-Ever Systematic Study of Online Political Ads: The 2004 Presidential Campaigns Have Virtually Ignored the Internet As An Advertising Medium.

The presidential candidates, national political parties, and advocacy groups (“527s”) spent a combined total of only $2.66 million for advertisements on the web between January and August of 2004. That is less than half of what the John Kerry campaign raised in contributions from the internet in a single day: $5.7 million on July 29, the day Kerry gave his nomination acceptance speech.

“The presidential campaign world today regards the internet as an asset for fund-raising, voter-profiling, and insider communicating, but not for advertising,” said Dr. Michael Cornfield, author of the Pew study, the first ever to examine daily tracking data of online advertisements on more than two thousand commercial web sites. “That’s somewhat surprising, because online advertising could be a good way for campaigns to get the attention of the tens of millions of eligible voters who use the internet but have yet to visit a campaign web site.”

According to the study, available at www.pewinternet.org, the Kerry campaign has outspent the Bush campaign by a 3:1 margin: $1.3 million to $419,000. The Republican National Committee has spent $487,000; the Democratic National Committee, $257,000. Advocacy groups have spent $184,000 combined, with $104,000 by the MoveOn.org Voter Fund and no expenditures by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

The few ads that ran online between January and August 2004 mainly sought $25 and $50 campaign contributions. “Although parts of the online world are a political ‘Wild West’ where few standards of taste, civility, and accuracy prevail,” said Cornfield, “the ads we saw stayed out of the mud: a few remarks taken out of context, but no obscenity, graphic violence, or manifest smears and lies.”

Strategically, the Bush campaign aimed its online advertising at middle-class women and voters in battleground states in one big blast in May ($403,000 of the $419,000 total). The Kerry campaign concentrated on raising money from progressive outlets in metropolitan areas. Both campaigns preferred local to national and global news outlets, and web sites of “old media” properties to those of online companies. The top site favored by the Bush campaign was KPTV Oregons12.tv.com, the web site of the Fox television station in Portland, Oregon; the next most popular site for Bush ads was Parents.com, the site of Parents magazine. The Kerry campaign placed ads most frequently on the web site of the San Francisco Chronicle, sfgate.com, followed by newsweek.com and villagevoice.com.

The ad data were compiled by a TNSMI/CMAG affiliate company, Evaliant Media Resources. Using its “spidering” technology, Evaliant searches thousands of Web sites seeking brand-related banner advertising. Once found, these advertisements are tagged and collated according to Web site location, daily frequency, and estimated media-buying expenditure. Each time the spider sees an ad on a web site page, that is counted as an encounter; an ad placed on three different pages of one site on one day would thus yield a count of three.

The strategic and content analysis was conducted by Dr. Cornfield with the assistance of Alex Storey. Cornfield, author of Politics Moves Online: Campaigning and the Internet (2004, Century Foundation Press), currently serves as a senior research consultant to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.