WASHINGTON - Democrats are betting that when you fill up the tank, you'll take a little politics with your gasoline.
The national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) launched a monthlong ad campaign this weekend targeting Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., with ads in gas stations. The red-and-black billboards sit atop gas pumps for drivers to stare at while they fill up.
The gas pump approach, part of a broader Democratic campaign during the August congressional recess, is an attempt to get past the cacophony of ads, political or otherwise, on TV and the Internet.
But in some cases, gas stations and politicos clash like oil spills and fish. In 2008, Minnesota Republicans were rebuffed when they tried to place video ads at the pumps. Some gas companies, such as SuperAmerica, have a blanket policy banning political ads, said Christine Carnicelli, a spokeswoman for Northern Tier Energy, which purchased SuperAmerica last year.
The space above gas pumps is typically used to entice drivers with convenience store items, not sway their political views.
"Station owners don't want the headache of one of their customers coming and saying, 'Hey, I can't believe you're running this ad,'" said Tony Jacobson, president and CEO of AllOver Media, a Minneapolis company specializing in gas ads. "You don't want to alienate 50 percent of your customers."
Jacobson said that many station owners are independent from corporate parents, which can allow them to set ad policies, but he said most find politics "dicey."
The DCCC declined to say how much money is being used on the ads or how many gas stations have them, beyond providing a photo of one billboard. A DCCC spokesman said the ads were purchased through a national vendor, making it difficult to get local information.
The DCCC has touted small ad buys before: In April it spent $160 on one round of radio ads against Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Minn.
The new gas ads are part of a 44-district campaign the DCCC launched in August that includes phone calls, ads and billboards. Cravaack, who has been the recipient of most of the outside advertising in Minnesota this year, is also being targeted, though with a billboard, not ads at the pump.
The station ads don't hit Paulsen on gas prices -- a line the GOP has used against President Obama recently -- but attack him on Medicare and millionaire tax breaks, two big hobbyhorses of Democrats this election cycle.
The campaign is merely "repeating the same pathetic demagoguery," said Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "It's a worn-out page from their political playbook that ignores the economic crisis they helped create."
TV ads remain political operatives' bread and butter. But as ads saturate TV, the Internet and mobile phones, a different approach can often get more bang for the buck.
Campaigns are frequently turning to the Internet for more eyeballs. Tim Pawlenty's recently ended presidential campaign attracted attention for campaign videos resembling movie trailers. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann's campaign has Google ads that follow users from website to website.
The gas station ads take more of an old-school approach, relying on a printed billboard rather than video.
At gas stations, Jacobson said, drivers have nowhere to go for several minutes and are watching the dollar meter going up as they pump. "It's pretty tough to avoid the medium itself," he said.
Jacobsen said his company will sell political ads, but they make sure that station owners are "100 percent OK with it." He's seen owners put political ads up only to change their minds, he said. "The owners say, 'Hey, you gotta take these signs down. I've got everyone complaining about them.'"
Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723 Twitter: @StribHerb