Pioneers in Cyberspace by maqboolshahin


									Pioneers in Cyberspace: Emerging Public Sector Trends in Website Advertising

Alan Melchior Department of Political Science Florida International University

Presented at the 2004 Annual Meeting of the Southern Political Science Association in New Orleans, LA

In assessing the impact of information technology on American governance, Joseph Nye (2002: 14) posited that: (P)ublic responses to technology are lagging behind the private ones. Some aspects of that lag are fortuitous, but some are not. The future of democratic governance depends upon improving our ability to make the relevant distinctions. Website advertising is one those uses of information technology that has been exploited much more in the private sector than the public sector. While television is still king among media in the advertising industry, it is becoming increasingly common for commercial advertisers to add an online component to their marketing campaigns. By contrast, the Web is relatively devoid of political marketing. However, a handful of public sector pioneers have staked their claim online by purchasing website ads. This research looks to assess how far public sector advertisers are lagging behind their private sector counterparts, what the near-term prospects are for website advertising trends, and an evaluation of how fortuitous those trends actually are. This study does not touch on related areas already explored by others, including election campaign websites (Bimber & Davis 2003; Kamarck 2002), email advocacy campaigns (Berman & Mulligan 2003) and blogging (Bloom 2003). Instead, it examines the extent to which website advertising has been used for political campaigning and social marketing. Website advertising is a significant issue for public organizations, because it requires the public sector to deal with market forces. Public organizations that advertise online have to select from an infinite array of sites on which to advertise and often partner with private


advertising, technology and research firms in order to develop and execute the marketing plan. By confronting market forces and private sector partners, a public organization is constrained in how it uses the internet in ways it would not be if it were merely publishing an in-house website. The Web is also a distinctive medium because, like the rest of the internet, it consists of a countless number of channels, each of which attracts a group of like-minded individuals (Galston 2003: 38-40; Sunstein 2001: 56-59). The tendency of websites to narrowcast its content is amplified whenever they are heavily supported by advertising. Just as with other media that sell advertising, websites succeed in selling ad space by convincing potential advertisers that they reach desired audience segments better than their competitors do. While websites tend to draw people with similar interests, the imperative to prove that certain demographic or psychographic groups are concentrated in their audience becomes self-fulfilling, as content becomes narrowly focused. The power of website advertising to target audiences while steering them towards marketing messages and specific content has the potential to change the way political actors use the media. It provides electoral candidates and interest groups with new tools for gauging public opinion and reaching critical voter groups. Public agencies can improve their capacity to target underserved populations. While website advertising has the potential to create stronger links of communication within existing niches, it also has the potential to isolate niches from one another, as content is designed to appeal to ever-narrower audiences.


It is very early to speculate as to how political uses of website advertising will affect the public sphere, but by taking a look at those who have blazed the first trails, we can gain some insight regarding who makes marketing decisions about website ads and what the prevalent practices are at this early stage. This paper reviews the brief history of website advertising and the role of political marketing within it. In evaluating the presence of political actors in website advertising, we will take a look at the extent to which campaigns and agencies utilize website ads as well as the ways in which ad campaigns are funded, constructed and assessed. Finally, the potential impact of these trends is appraised.

Website Advertising: A Very Brief History Few empirical studies have been done on online political marketing in general, much less on the use of website advertising to promote political campaigns and public-sector programs. Recent studies have tackled for-profit and nonprofit organizations’ uses of the Web (Williams et. al. 2003), knowledge gaps between internet users and non-users known as the “digital divide” (Bonfadelli 2002) and the impact of the internet on social capital (Wellman et. al. 2001). Heather Savigny (2002) considered the potential impact of the internet as a challenger to traditional media’s dominance in political communication, but her investigation did not include empirical analysis. Of course, the reason for this dearth of research is that, as an industry, website advertising is still in its infancy. The first website ads were produced and


published in 1994 (Hotwired Research 1996). By 1996, online advertisers had organized in order to create common standards for ad unit sizes and software technologies as well as to promote their common interests. The resultant organization, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), is still a major force in the industry. A second industry group, the Online Publishers Association, was formed in 2001. These organizations, and thus the emerging online advertising industry, are populated and driven by several types of groups. There are the major online publishers, several of which are the interactive branches of media conglomerates, like Viacom’s, MSNBC, Walt Disney Interactive Group and Washingtonpost Newsweek Interactive. Software developers who specialize in online advertising formats are also represented, as are ad agencies, ad serving companies and research firms. As these companies work together to coordinate their efforts to create, employ and evaluate online ad technologies, they have developed a common set of practices. The earliest signs of the industry competitiveness emerged in 1998, when online ads generated more revenue than outdoor ads for the first time, topping $2 billion in revenue for the entire year (Pastore 1999). By 2003, the industry was sufficiently established such that $3.3 billion was spent on online advertising during the first half of the year alone (Parker 2003). Within the last three years, IAB and OPA have encouraged their publishing members to adopt two new practices: 1) the adoption of graphically sophisticated creative units known as rich media and 2) making the cultivation of


brand awareness the primary objective of website advertising, rather than focusing on driving traffic by clicking through to other online destinations. This has changed the way that many publishers and ad agencies have approached the creation and evaluation of online ads. It has also created an important role in the industry for market research firms such as Dynamic Logic and Millward Brown IntelliQuest.

The Political Sector’s Role in the Website Ad Industry As the online ad industry hones its capacity for targeting market segments, building brand identities and evaluating ad effectiveness, it has increasing utility for the political sector. Political campaign organizations and public agencies alike make use of segmentation techniques and effectiveness studies to create and evaluate marketing campaigns in traditional media (Scammell 1999; Kotler & Armstrong 1996). In spite of the industry’s growing capacity to serve the marketing needs of the political sector, political organizations still play a marginal role in the online advertising network. Publishers, and the companies that provide services to them, have the strongest voices in the industry, and the vast majority of their advertisers are commercial entities. According to Nielsen Adrelevance data, only 0.2% of all ad impressions purchased during the first three quarters of 2003 were bought by public agencies, political parties or political campaign organizations.1

Political campaign organizations include campaigns for candidates running for office and campaigns supporting or opposing ballot referenda. Political ads for nonprofit organizations were not included in this total, as data for political ads were not separable from data for non-political ads.



Data for national-level public agencies were unavailable prior to 2002, so we cannot determine how much growth there has been in recent years for public sector website ads. If the number of ad impressions through the end of Q3 2003 can be prorated for the entirety of 2003, there appears to be no change from the 2002 total of 2.1 billion impressions. However, a different picture appears if we exclude national-level agencies from our comparison, and there are two reasons for doing so. First, data from 2001 are available for all other public sector website advertisers. Second, national-level agencies skew the trend data. Even though they represented 94% of all public sector ad impressions from Q1 2002 to Q3 2003, only 22% of the public sector organizations that bought ads during that period were national-level agencies. When excluding national-level agencies from the comparison, the share has been increasing over the last three years, as illustrated in Table 1. In 2001, political campaigns, parties, and state and local public agencies bought only 84.6 million online ad impressions, as opposed 118.0 million in 2002, which represents a 39% increase. In the first three quarters of 2003 alone, they had already purchased 112.5 million impressions, nearly reaching the previous year’s total. If we pare down the analysis further by only looking at public agencies, we see that they have already exceeded their impression total from all of 2002 by 18%. The total for electoral campaigns dipped to less than half, though this was to be expected in an off-year election. Of this diminished total, 99% of all election-related impressions were bought by two California gubernatorial recall


candidates (Arianna Huffington and Garrett Gruener) and Howard Dean’s presidential campaign.

TABLE 1 Website Ad Impressions in Millions Purchased by Public Sector Advertisers (Excluding National-Level Agencies), 2001-2003
State and Local Agencies % Change Parties and Campaigns % Change Total % Change Source: Nielsen Adrelevance. 2003 (thru 3Q) 97.4 18% 15.0 -57% 112.5 -5% 2002 82.7 -2% 35.3 NA 118.0 39% 2001 84.6 NA 0.0 NA 84.6 NA

Despite the rate of growth since 2001, the 112.5 million impressions bought collectively by political campaigns, parties, and state and local agencies in the first three quarters of 2003 is still not an overwhelming presence. By comparison, it is a small fraction of the impressions purchased by the alcoholic beverage industry (1.8 billion) and slightly less than the number of online ad impressions purchased by Coors Brewing alone (120.3 million) over the same period. In terms of rate card value, the collective purchase for these ad campaigns amounts to approximately less than $2.3 million.2 Even after adding the 1.4 billion impressions bought by national-level agencies back in, the public sector has still purchased fewer impressions than the alcoholic beverage industry.

Rate card values are estimates provided by Nielsen Adrelevance. With this exception, advertising purchases are measured in this study using ad impressions, as reported rate card values are rarely consistent with actual rate card values that are paid by advertisers.



While the public sector is lagging behind the private sector in terms of the volume of ads placed on websites, it is doing a better job of keeping pace in other areas. As website publishers and software developers encourage advertisers to abandon static ad units for animated units known as rich media, many private and public sector advertisers have been making the shift. As shown in Table 2, for the first three quarters of 2003, the share of total impressions dedicated to static image ads decreased by 16% for private sector advertisers, as compared to 2002 totals. The share of total public sector ad impressions dedicated to static image ads actually increased by 33%, but the year-to-year difference is –8% when ads by national-level agencies are excluded. Public sector advertisers, minus the national-level agencies, have also nearly doubled the share of ads that use Flash animation (which is more interactive and sophisticated than the GIF format).

TABLE 2 Share of Total Impressions Dedicated to Various Creative Technologies
Creative Type Private Sector Advertisers Static Image GIF Animation Flash Animation Public Sector Advertisers (All) Static Image GIF Animation Flash Animation Public Sector Advertisers (excl. National-Level Agencies) Static Image GIF Animation Flash Animation Source: Nielsen Adrelevance. 2003 (thru Q3) 34.9% 43.1% 9.9% 21.9% 43.7% 20.1% 2002 41.6% 48.4% 4.2% 16.5% 53.9% 22.1% % Change -16.1% -11.0% 134.7% 32.9% -19.0% -9.2%

30.0% 46.3% 20.6%

32.4% 56.2% 10.6%

-7.5% -17.7% 93.9%


In one very important area, public sector advertisers are actually leading the way. Frustrated with meager click-through rates and buoyed by research findings that tout the effectiveness of creating brand identities via website advertising (Romeo and Nyhan 2002), IAB and OPA have encouraged their members to design their online ad campaigns to build brand awareness. While private sector advertisers have yet to show signs of adopting this new strategy, public sector advertisers appear to be getting on board. Even when national-level agencies are included in the comparison, public sector advertisers increased the share of ad impressions dedicated to communication knowledge of their “brand” by 28%, as shown in Table 3. The trend is amplified when national-level agencies are excluded, as the annual increase jumps to 65%. Even more telling, when national-level agencies are excluded, the share of ad impressions designed to drive traffic to another media destination decreased by 33% from 2002. For private sector advertisers, this share actually increased by 11%, thus making click-throughs the strategy employed in a majority of these ads for the first three quarters of 2003. One finding seems to contradict the pattern of moving toward brandbuilding. Across the board, ads designed to reposition the advertiser in the marketplace fell out of favor in 2003. This strategy is closely related to creating brand awareness, and it is confounding that its popularity is waning so dramatically.


TABLE 3 Share of Total Impressions Dedicated to Various Marketing Strategies
Marketing Strategy Private Sector Advertisers Drive Traffic Create Brand Awareness Positioning Public Sector Advertisers (All) Drive Traffic Create Brand Awareness Positioning Public Sector Advertisers (excl. National-Level Agencies) Drive Traffic Create Brand Awareness Positioning Source: Nielsen Adrelevance. 2003 (thru Q3) 53.7% 28.8% 1.0% 57.0% 30.0% 11.5% 2002 48.4% 31.8% 2.5% 33.1% 23.4% 42.9% % Change 10.9% -9.4% -58.3% 72.1% 28.2% -73.2%

40.9% 58.8% 0.3%

61.3% 35.7% 3.1%

-33.3% 65.0% -90.1%

Collectively, these data tell us two stories about the recent trends in website advertising among public sector advertisers. The first story is about national-level agencies, which buy the vast majority of website ads. Despite their relatively sizable presence, these agencies have been recently pursuing a more traditional marketing strategy, keeping their units static and simple and aiming to drive traffic to other online destinations. The second story, relating to all other public sector advertisers, is quite different. Though a much smaller presence in terms of ad impressions, the number of impressions has been growing since 2001. Also, their advertisements are becoming increasingly sophisticated, making use of animation technologies and creating brand identities for candidates, referenda positions and public programs and agencies. To better understand the dynamics behind these public sector ad campaigns, several phone interviews were conducted with officials involved in making media purchases. Interviews with officials from five state and local


agencies were conducted during the fall of 2003. Each of the agencies had run at least one online ad campaign since 2002. Interviewing a sample of officials responsible for election campaigns was made difficult due to the lack of recent or ongoing online campaigns. However, for the purposes of this study, an official representing the Howard Dean campaign was interviewed via email. While the Dean campaign has received a great deal of press for its innovative uses of the internet as a campaigning and fundraising tool, during the time period of this study, there were actually five election campaign advertisers who purchased more website ad impressions than they did. Of the five advertisers, there were two gubernatorial hopefuls from the 2003 California recall election, a state political party, a single-issue interest group and a candidate for a local clerk’s office.

Public Sector Website Advertising Practices The six political advertisers that were interviewed face a variety of marketing challenges. As Table 4 illustrates, the five public agencies represent four different programmatic areas and five different types of specific programs, all of which have a different marketing task. Of course, the Dean campaign has a different marketing task than any of the state and local agencies. Collectively, the agencies and the election campaign represent all three levels of government. Each organization made a significant online ad buy, with each purchase consisting of at least one million impressions. The largest purchase, totaling nearly 18 million impressions, was made by Public Health Agency (B).


TABLE 4 Characteristics of Sample Online Ad Campaigns
Type of Organization Level of Government Focus of Ad Campaign Source of Funding Ad Strategy Supporting Research

Presidential campaign (Dean)


Promote candidacy

Public health agency (A)


Publicize sexual assault hotline

Public health agency (B)


Promote youth smoking cessation campaign

From campaign’s finance dept.; online ads will soon have its own budget line Funded by state legislature as part of victims’ services appropriation State settlement with tobacco companies

Google ads link to Dean site; Wesley Clark also using same approach Create awareness of hotline and social marketing message Create awareness of social marketing message

CTRs; details regarding other research not disclosed

Change in call levels to hotline monitored

Public utilities agency

Local (municipal)

Promote energy conservation

Agency budget includes line item for contract with major local news website

Public works agency

Local (county)

Toll road authority


Publicize recycling programs, hotline, website Promote transponder sales, provide commuter information

Mandated by federal and state legislation Allowed by state legislation to be budgeted as marketing expense

Create awareness of social marketing message and drive traffic to site for further information Drive traffic to website

Ad agency selected media outlets to match state-defined target audience; creative influenced by focus group and survey results; phone surveys assessed ad effectiveness Segmentation studies a year and a half away; effectiveness study performed by research firm via phone surveys

Drive traffic to website

Media research firms provide segmentation and effectiveness analyses Phone surveys, PRIZM data and focus groups used for targeting; tested creatives in small focus groups (diads); CTRs; Branding awareness studies coming next year


Despite the differences in these organizations and the subject matter of their marketing campaigns, there were several similarities among them. The common trends and the aberrations are reviewed below. Specifically, comparisons across the organizations are made regarding funding sources and spending discretion, marketing strategies, and the extent to which research was used to support their online advertising efforts.

Funding Sources and Spending Discretion None of the six organizations received funds that were explicitly earmarked for website advertising. Instead, the monies used for website ads were drawn from broader budget line items.3 Most typically the funds came from the agency’s budget for marketing. Only the public utilities agency had any constraint on how it spent money on website advertising, as it holds an exclusive contract with a major local news site. However, in each case, the decision to purchase website advertising was up to the discretion of the agency. In two of the six cases, purchasing website ads was more of an afterthought than a conscious policy decision. Because the public utilities agency had an exclusive contract with a single website, once the decision was made to include an interactive component to their marketing campaign, where to advertise was a foregone conclusion. One of the public health agencies (A) already had an agreement with the major local newspaper to purchase print ads that would

An official from the Howard Dean campaign reported that a separate budget line item for online advertising would be introduced in the near future.



publicize the agency’s sexual assault hotline. The newspaper included online ad units as a “throw-in” to include with their larger print deal. In the remaining three agencies, the organizations arrived at decisions regarding where and how to spend funds on website ads through a review process. Only the public works agency relies on external review of its marketing plan; this is due to the specifications of a state legislative mandate. According to the legislation, each local jurisdiction has to submit their plan to the state agency for approval.

Advertising Strategy Three of the six organizations used website ads that were designed to foster brand awareness in place of or in addition to ads that were designed to move viewers to another website. One might expect that the Dean campaign ads would be among those aimed at building brand awareness, given the need of Presidential candidates to compete against rivals and establish distinctive identities. Dean’s ads, however, are merely designed to move viewers to the online sign up page for the campaign’s mailing list (with a prompt stating “Take back America, Sign-up today!”). In fact, much of the campaign’s online ad impressions consist of Google text ads, which have the same look for all advertisers. The nondescript ad units consist solely of text and a link with a shaded background and a border. Though the incentive for public agencies to create a brand identity is less obvious, there are two possible reasons for agencies to pursue this. First, for


marketing campaigns that are part of a larger reinvention effort, agencies may use advertising to establish their identity as a competitor in the marketplace. (Again, related to this would be efforts to also position themselves as a superior alternative to their competitors.) Though two of the five agencies are using their marketing capacity to help them pursue reinvention goals, neither agency has designed its website ads to explicitly create a brand identity. One of these agencies, the toll road authority, does use radio and outdoor ads to establish the toll road and transponder systems as an alternative to other routes and modes of transportation. The focus of the website ads is strictly to encourage potential toll roads users to visit the authority’s website for more information. The goals of the other organization undergoing reinvention, the public works agency, are more focused on public education objectives rather than on establishing themselves in the marketplace. Correspondingly, their ads implore site visitors to “click and clean” by getting recycling information from the agency website. Second, an agency can use branding as a social marketing tool, thus trying to alter some aspect of a targeted group’s behavior. Both the toll road authority and public works agency could fall into this category, as they are trying to change the behavior of specific groups. The toll road authority wants commuters to use their road system and purchase transponders; the public works agency wants businesses and residents to recycle. However, the main function of their website ads is not to narrowcast social marketing messages to targeted groups.


By contrast, ads purchased by the public utilities agency and the two public health agencies are explicitly designed to create a brand identity. Most of the ad creative for these agencies’ website campaigns do not include a prompt for users to click on the ad or to visit another website. Both of the health agencies’ ads include animation, a tag line and a hotline number. There are several versions of the utilities agency ad, but those that do not try to move the viewer to the agency’s website are simple static ads that feature their logo and slogan. While all three agencies use their ads to drive viewers elsewhere, the main purpose of these ads is something other than generating a click-through. In place of clicking through, what these ads aim to do is associate a tag line or a brief message with the campaign and encourage some type of behavioral change (e.g., call a hotline number, quit smoking, get a home energy audit). Even most of the ads that prompt viewers to click through also include these other elements. Creating a brand identity online is a difficult task when held to the standards of television ads. Even the most sophisticated website ads do not have the visual power of a television ad to create a compelling narrative or image. It is hard to imagine an online campaign having the same type of cultural impact of Nike’s “Just Do It” or MasterCard’s “Priceless” ads. However, each agency used online ads as a supplement to ads in other media, and in most cases, the media mix included television spots.


Supporting Research Though website ads do not have the reach or the visual power of television ads, research has demonstrated that website ads are often effective at strengthening brand identity, especially when used in tandem with ads in other media (Morrissey 2002). Agencies may be benefiting from this lift in branding attributes, but how aware are they of the impact of their ads? And how consciously are they using targeting techniques to narrowcast their message to specific groups? One might expect that the Dean campaign would use segmentation and effectiveness analyses to hone their message. Given that the main emphasis of their website ads is to drive viewers to the campaign website, click-through rates (CTRs) would be the most appropriate indicator of success. In fact, this is the only evaluation measure that the Dean campaign reported using. The campaign would not disclose other evaluation or targeting techniques that have been used. All five public agencies (or their contracted media research firms) engaged in some sort of ad effectiveness evaluation. Phone surveys were conducted for two of the website campaigns. One of the public health agencies (A) compared pre- and post-campaign levels of calls to their sexual assault hotline, and the public works agency’s media research firm provided an effectiveness analysis, though the interviewee did not specify what type of analysis was provided. The toll road authority has used CTRs to assess the success of its ads, though they report that a branding awareness study will be conducted in 2004.


Three of the public agencies used segmentation analyses to determine where to target their ads. A fourth agency (Public Utilities) claimed that segmentation analyses were in their future plans—“about a year and half away.” The fifth agency, Public Health Agency (A), had the bulk of their ad impressions “thrown in” as part of a package deal with the major local daily newspaper. However, a small part of the campaign (approximately 600,000 impressions) appeared on the WNBA league site. According to an official involved in the campaign, no segmentation research was done. The three agencies that performed segmentation analyses provide programs for very different populations, so the likely effect would be that their ads would appear in publications targeted to very different audiences. Since the campaigns dealt with programs as varied as teen smoking cessation, recycling and toll roads, it is surprising that all of the ads appeared on similar types of sites. The smoking cessation program ads were placed on a major general purpose portal, a major local search portal and the state’s leading daily news website. The recycling program ads were placed almost exclusively on the region’s top daily news site, and the toll road ads were also purchased from a major local news publisher as well as from a major local search portal. The same pattern—purchasing space on news and portal sites—held for the organizations that did not perform segmentation analyses. Only two relatively small purchases appear to be targeted: the above-mentioned placement on by Public Health Agency (A) and the roughly 150,000 Dean


campaign ad impressions that ran on the website for the gay and lesbian magazine The Advocate. Data were unavailable regarding which website sections or pages featured ads, so it is possible that segmentation analyses had a greater effect on the placement of these ads than it appears. For example, while the bulk of the teen smoking cessation ads appeared on a general purpose portal, it is possible that those impressions were targeted in sections that attract a higher concentration of teens than other sections of the site. Without knowing how impressions were distributed across the sites, we cannot know for certain if segmentation research had a greater effect. However, the absence of purchases on sites that cater specifically to certain populations—teens, corporate recyclers, heavy commuters—indicates that the research was not used to target as narrowly as it could have.

Advertising Practices Summary From these six cases, we can see a number of patterns common to different types of agencies. In general, the decision to purchase website advertising was a conscious one, and it was not imposed on the agencies by other branches or levels of government. As with many of their counterparts in the private sector, a public sector organization’s decision to buy website advertising does not necessarily mean the advertiser is poised to take full advantage of the medium’s potential for targeting and narrowcasting. Though some of the advertisers featured in this study have moved beyond the click-through mentality,


none of them used website ads explicitly as a means of establishing themselves in the marketplace or creating a brand identity for social marketing purposes. Though all of these public organizations have been fairly conventional in their use of website ads, there is at least one example of a quasi-public agency using website ads in a strategic manner more comparable with major private sector advertisers’ ads. The American Legacy Foundation, a coalition of state attorneys general and the tobacco industry, has used funds from state tobacco settlements for its “Truth” social marketing campaign. This effort has had a substantial online component, as 25.9 million impressions were purchased during the first three quarters of 2003. Most of these impressions have been targeted for sites aimed at gay and lesbian and female audiences, and ad messages and images have been tailored specifically for each site. Though the organizations examined for this study have not gone as far as some private and nonprofit agencies in using their online ad strategically, all of them have used market research to support their efforts to at least some degree. The toll road authority even went as far as employing a more extensive battery of research tools, including PRIZM cluster analyses, focus groups and diads, than many private and nonprofit advertisers do. Each organization collected data to assess the ads’ effectiveness, though none of them is currently relying on measures such as brand awareness or sponsorship association that market research firms provide to their private sector clients. The use of segmentation analyses was less prevalent, and it was unclear how the results were used by those organizations that had them available.


Though these cases provide signs of growing sophistication in public sector advertisers’ efforts online, it appears that the public sector is lagging behind the private and nonprofit sectors in its conscious and systematic use of website advertising. The six organizations represent a small sample, but they are among the leading non-federal purchasers of website ads, so if anything, we might expect them to be ahead of the pack, if not representative. If the gap between public and private organizations closes, are there signs from these six cases and from the aggregate data to suggest that this instance of the public sector mimicking the private sector is problematic for democratic governance?

Does Website Advertising Matter to Democracy? Political advertising in any medium presents the potential to change the way citizens view the public realm, or at least some aspect of it; in fact, that’s really the whole point. We are a heavily mediated society, and much of our information—political or otherwise--comes to us through mass and group media. Increasingly, that information is embedded in a carefully crafted marketing message. The growing reliance of publishers and producers to use “advertorials” and sponsored program segments as ways to simultaneously provide content and raise advertising revenues are just two ways in which we see the creeping influence of marketing. Website advertising is still a media backwater, but it is growing in its overall reach and its penetration of a broader collection of niche groups. Though a “digital divide” still exists, internet usage has increased for all major


demographic categories (Madden 2003). As website advertising grows in its reach and breadth, the impact of marketing campaigns that include a Web component matters more. When a brewing company or an auto manufacturer spends hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) annually just to determine the impact of its online branding efforts, its political impact is still peripheral at most.4 When candidates for political office, interest groups and public agencies start doing the same thing, the influence of the research and subsequent tweaks made to campaigns is more explicitly political. In short, there are two kinds of stakes that the growth of website advertising raises. The first kind is familiar, as it elicits questions already raised by ads on television and other media. If a public agency changes our behavior with, say, a catchy anti-smoking slogan, or alters its own public image by presenting itself as a marketplace competitor, then are public officials communicating with the public in a way that is responsible? The second kind pertains to the nature of the internet: Do marketing messages have a different impact on the public realm when they are proliferated piecemeal to increasingly narrower niches?

Marketing as a Form of Political Communication In many normative theories of political communication, the media play an important role as a key reflector and creator of public opinion (Savigny 2002: 1).


A commercial marketing campaign can be political in the sense that the ads can aim to spread a message that has political implications. For example, a recent online Visa campaign that focused on identity theft could have conceivably raised awareness of it as an issue that deserves to be on the political agenda, even if this was not the intent of the ad campaign.


Often the normative emphasis of these theories is on the generation of deliberative discourse and citizen involvement.5 Because marketing is often understood to be synonymous with propaganda, or at least intentional deceit, the idea of marketing as a model for political communication tends to make scholars of politics uneasy. Nicholas O’Shaughnessy and Stephan Henneberg (2002: xixiii) argue that this discomfort is unwarranted, arguing that political marketing, while not necessarily deliberative, is essentially interactive. They contend that marketing expands the interaction beyond discourse by “surfacing (the customer’s) latent wants—the underlying desires they cannot articulate fully.” What makes the relationship between marketers and audiences interactive is that market research data enable an exchange between the two parties. The marketer learns more about the audience’s desires—latent or otherwise—and the audience then sees its preferences better represented in the available market and political choices. The marketing relationship, then, can only be sustained if either the promises made in marketing messages are kept or if the audience is more concerned with the reassurance provided by the message than with the actual keeping of the promise. Website advertising can improve upon the standard set by advertising in other media in terms of creating a true market exchange between advertiser and audience. It can be an ideal medium for communication through marketing because of its capacity for interaction in real time. Currently this capacity is almost completely untapped. If the website advertising industry succeeds in
While much has been written on the topic, an especially wide-ranging exploration of perspectives on the prospects for democratic deliberation is presented in Stephen Macedo, ed. (1999), Deliberative Politics: Essays on Democracy and Disagreement.


increasing its reliance on the traditional advertising goal of creating brand identities, and therefore shuns CTRs as a measure of success, the chances for tapping into that capacity are dim. The strategies pursued by the six organizations examined in this study reinforce the idea that public sector advertisers are not looking to engage citizens in real time interaction. There is still an exchange taking place; the advertiser gets its message out through the medium, but gives viewers something they will find palatable. However, without a true person-to-person, real-time interaction, you have an exchange involving one group that benefits from an awareness of purpose and an organized pursuit of that purpose and one group that is far less aware and organized as a party to the exchange. One could level the same critique against marketing in television and other media, but given the internet’s capacity for enabling real-time interactions, this is one critique that does not have to apply to website advertising.

Narrowcasting and the Digital Divide Another way in which website advertising has the potential to distinguish itself from advertising in other media is its capacity to help advertisers to target audience niches more effectively. The Web has countless “channels,” but even if we consider only the major publishers, many of the highest-volume sites provide sponsorship opportunities that are narrowly targeted. For example, a diabetes patient can access content regarding the disease on a popular health site, such as WebMD, at any time of any day. This provides an around-the-clock


sponsorship opportunity for pharmaceutical companies, medical equipment manufacturers and care providers to reach their target audience that does not exist in any other medium. Similar narrowcasting opportunities are available for public sector advertisers, though the American Legacy Foundation’s “Truth” campaign aside, these opportunities have not been seized very often. If the American Legacy Foundation’s anti-tobacco campaign is a sign of things to come, then targeting methods coupled with branding effectiveness research can become a powerful tool for public agencies and political campaigns to get their messages to the desired audiences. No doubt this would be hailed by social marketers as a great achievement, but the thought of public goods and services being branded in the same way that sneakers and colas are is unsettling. Narrowcasting also raises concerns of further fragmenting our already disjointed society, but the blurring of private and public spheres is of just as much concern.

Conclusion Website advertising is still in its infancy, and with the public sector lagging behind the private sector, it is especially difficult to forecast future trends in online political marketing for public organizations. It is more difficult yet to try to determine what the impact of these trends might be. No definitive conclusions can be reached as a result of this initial research, but some of the early trends raise questions and concerns that scholars need to tend to if and when online political advertising expands its reach and ambitions. These trends include:



National-level agencies buying the vast majority of ad impressions, thus creating a higher level of awareness of national programs than state or local programs.


An increasing emphasis on traditional advertising techniques, including a reliance on entertaining creative units over complex content, clustered targeting, and the use of ads to create brand identity and awareness, all of which may further blur the distinction between private and public spheres.


The potential abandonment of CTRs as an advertising objective, which may remove the interactive element of website advertising.

We can assess how fortuitous the development of the website advertising industry is for the public sector by tracking these trends, as well as others that emerge. This will become increasingly important as the online audience continues to grow and the medium becomes a more established part of everyday life. More research needs to be conducted to better understand this emerging phenomenon, though the time to consider its impact will be upon us soon. It is important to assess what it will mean for the gap to close between public and private organizations, and particularly to do so before the gap closes.


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