A new way to spend money

Political campaigns know who you are, where you're registered to vote, what party you're affiliated with -- and which Web sites you use.

Published December 22, 1999 11:51AM (EST)

What e-commerce was to Christmas 1999, Internet advertising will be to Campaign 2000 -- the supposed be-all and end-all that will make some folks rich, bankrupt others and probably not live up to its hype. Now the two leading Republican presidential candidates are using Internet advertising to target likely supporters in early key primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia.

According to Aristotle Co. spokesman Jay MacAniff, both Arizona Sen. John McCain and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have placed banner ads through the company, which describes itself as "essentially a consultant on this new technology." While Aristotle is very hush-hush about the fine points of what it does, the company claims to have mastered a way to target -- by location and party affiliation -- Internet users who are registered voters.

The list is a potential gold mine for political candidates trying to refine their message to a specific group of voters at a fraction of the cost of a direct mailing. But the ads do not appear in the targeted voters' e-mail boxes, like e-Spam; instead, they appear, seemingly at random, as they peruse the Web.

To make its targeting work, Aristotle is depending partly upon so-called permission-based marketing, which uses lists of people who have agreed to let companies solicit them in return for gifts such as free computers. It also works with Internet service providers, which can identify individual users and allow companies like Aristotle to cross-check identifying information against voter-registration lists to determine who should see the ad.

The McCain campaign gives Aristotle partial credit for helping enlist volunteers to get the candidate's name on the ballot in Virginia. The company cross-referenced state voter-registration records with user lists on a series of Web sites, so that only voters in Virginia would see McCain's ad.

"We're very pleased with the success of the ad for the petition drive," said McCain spokeswoman Nancy Ives. "From what I understand, 50 percent of the people who clicked on the banner signed up." Ives said it was the campaign's first experiment with paid, online advertising, but that McCain is considering using more online ads in the future.

The McCain campaign said the ads appeared on roughly 1,500 sites, but did not identify which ones. MacAniff wouldn't reveal where the ads ran, either. He said the placement buys for the ads are done by another company, but refused to identify which company.

A recent story by ZDNet revealed that the McCain ads were spotted on Excite.com. Other Web portals and news sites were believed to be among the sites where the ads have appeared.

Why all the trench-coat secrecy? MacAniff says it's just par for the course in the fast-developing world of Internet technology. He said his company has served "nine current or former presidential campaigns in this cycle as clients; 49 percent of incumbent senators have used us and 40 percent of incumbent congressmen."

The Bush ad, recently previewed for the press and set to run in Iowa and New Hampshire, is also interactive. In one of the banner ads, you can enter your family's income and number of dependents; it will automatically calculate how much money you can save under Bush's tax-cut proposal.

"This is the first time that presidential campaigns have targeted voters on the Internet," MacAniff said. "In the case of the Bush ad, it's something that's highly interactive. It's more than just a bumper sticker or billboard in cyberspace. It's informational and customizable for and by the viewer." He insists the company won't keep the information it gathers on income -- which of course would be gold to other clients.

There might seem something a little Big Brotherish in political candidates tracking down Web-surfing Republican voters and communicating with them via pop-up ads. But the practice hasn't raised a hue and cry about privacy, at least not yet.

"This is simply the online equivalent of something that's already being done through direct mail," said Terry Francke, president of the California First Amendment Coalition. "If this is an invasion of privacy, I guess direct mail is too. I guess the real question is not a legal one, but really how effective this is going to be."

On that point, many are skeptical. Lots of companies have tried to contrive ways for advertisers to target certain groups -- by geography, for example -- with limited success. Kam Kuwata, campaign manager for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., says he is not convinced that companies like Aristotle are actually capable of delivering everything they promise.

"The reality is that we don't know yet what the impact of Internet advertising is going to be and how you're going to reach voters in the future," he said. "Anybody who makes these open promises is trying to sell you something that they don't know is for sure."

But Kuwata has been wrong before. "In 1994, our consultant suggested we look into [having a campaign Web site]. I was a naysayer. Now, it's just essential. You have to have an Internet presence and an e-mail presence to communicate with voters. Hell, I even communicate with Dianne via e-mail. It's just easier."

For now, Kuwata remains skeptical about the future of paid political advertising online. "I have talked to people who say they've found the cure. One thing I know is that nothing is that easy in politics."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Campaign Finance George W. Bush John Mccain