Campaign ads for smart phones, Web come of age

By ERIC ROPER, Star Tribune

September 30, 2010

Minnesotans may not have realized it, but Rep. Michele Bachmann was quietly gunning for their votes this August as they munched on pork chops, Pronto Pups and cheese curds at the State Fair.

"Watch this video on Tarryl Clark taxing your State Fair foods," said an ad that popped up on fairgoers' mobile phones, referring to Bachmann's Democratic opponent in the Sixth Congressional District.

That was no coincidence. The ad was "geo-targeted." Using Google technology, the ad was designed to hit only phones on or near the fairgrounds. Within an hour, it had appeared 12,500 times on smart phones near the fair.

"So many people do everything on their phones these days, why not reach those voters in the same way?" said Bachmann spokesman Sergio Gor.

As more voters head online for political information, campaigns are spending more of their budgets on sophisticated Web ads that zero in on specific locations and demographics. The advantage over TV spots? They are cheap, fast and success is easy to measure.

Campaigns can target voters by age, location or gender. They can aim at those who search for "No Child Left Behind," visit an opponent's website, or who live in Woodbury. Bachmann's State Fair ad touched on a new frontier: smart phones.

"If you're running a campaign, you always want to make sure your campaign office looks bright and that you have lots of signage around," said Denise Cardinal, who runs Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a liberal independent expenditure group. "There needs to be the same sort of attention paid to your virtual space."

When Alliance learned this spring that Target Corp. donated to a group running ads in support of Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, who opposes same-sex marriage, it alerted Target employees -- through Facebook. Isolating people who listed Target as their employer, Alliance garnered more than 5,000 clicks to their online petition.

"I think frankly it was one of the reasons why, when the Target CEO apologized, he apologized to his employees," Cardinal said.

Independence Party candidate for governor Tom Horner's campaign typically spends just under 10 percent of its ad budget online, spokesman Matt Lewis said. Some of that money pays to run short ads that precede YouTube videos.

"We have videos on our website of Tom talking about specific policies," Lewis said. "Well if we could pare that down to 15 seconds and target it to an education audience, then that's terrific."

Peter Greenberger, the head of political advertising at Google, said the number of statewide campaigns using their services has grown eightfold from 2008. Online advertising first made a splash in politics two years ago, when presidential candidates, along with then-U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken, put it to wide use. "What we're seeing is a coming of age in 2010," Greenberger said.

'I saw your ad online'

For many campaigns, the first step is making sure their ad or website is promoted when people search Google or visit specific websites.

During the primary, DFL governor's candidate Matt Entenza invested heavily in online advertising to target likely DFL primary voters, using Google and micro-targeting firms.

"We had a lot of folks say, 'I saw your ad online. I decided to take a look at your Web page, and I think I really like what you had to say,'" said former Entenza campaign manager Dave Colling.

The ads are particularly useful for candidates without the resources to buy expensive television spots.

DFLer Jim Meffert, who is challenging Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen in the Third Congressional District, has suffered from poor name recognition and has lacked the money to hit the airwaves. But Meffert had enough to promote a campaign website linking his rival's voting record to that of Bachmann, also a Republican. Paulsen then opened fire with a massive television ad campaign this week, going after Meffert repeatedly, by name.

Meffert campaign staffers watched as more people viewed Meffert-related ads online with every airing of Paulsen's spot.

"[Paulsen's] ad says, 'Why is Jim Meffert running a negative campaign?'" said Meffert spokeswoman Kate Monson. "And the voters are saying, 'Who the heck is Jim Meffert?' And then they're going to go look it up."

In addition to spreading the campaign message, online ads have proven cost-effective.

Carrie Lucking, a spokeswoman for the Clark campaign, said the online ad presence brings in many new contributions. "That's where a bulk of the [donor] numbers and the small, small donations come from," Lucking said.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732