Barack Obama and John McCain duked it out till the very end online, with ads that went after specific audiences in important swing states. Sites across the Web were drowned in hundreds of millions of Obama's voter registration and state-targeted early voting ads in the final weeks. Meanwhile, the McCain camp attacked, asked for cash, and played the Palin card in display ads more focused on persuading voters than the campaign's earlier ads had been. Joe the Plumber made an appearance, too, of course.
Though the majority of Obama's ads were all about getting people to register and vote early, both campaigns attempted persuasion through display ads in September and October. Not only was it something rarely done earlier by either campaign, persuasion is rarely a goal of online political advertising period.
Winning the Women
Women were a target. Throughout the election both camps aimed display ads to women; however neither ran display ads that seemed geared to female voters until those final months. Obama ran issue-based ads with themes important to women voters, as did the McCain camp, which attempted to turn Republican VP hopeful Sarah Palin into a brand representing female empowerment.
Palin appeared in lots of ads promoting her ticket, spotted by Nielsen Online AdRelevance in the last two full months of campaigning. "They demanded change," read McCain/Palin ads displaying black and white images from the suffrage movement. Not only were the ads intended to appeal to women's sense of history and franchise, they made Obama's "change" message their own -- or tried to.
One ad introduced in October featuring Palin showed a young girl in a field, her arms spread wide with optimism: "Inspiring a new generation of leaders," it said. Another touted Palin's Vice Presidential debate performance, citing a quote from Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan: "She killed. It was her evening. She was the star." Many of McCain's ads were spotted by Nielsen Online on women-centric sites such as iVillage and Better Homes & Gardens Online.
Obama Goes Negative
After months of almost no attacks in its display ads, the Obama camp took a negative tone in messages directed to women. "An alarming fact every woman should know. John McCain is running on a platform with a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions in America," declared one Obama ad. Another mimicked an Obama TV spot, implying McCain didn't support equal pay for women. "Women are paid 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. Only one candidate supports equal pay for equal work. Join Women for Obama."
Obama's Web team also bought on female-centric sites like iVillage, and through the Blogher network.
The McCain campaign shot right back, broadcast ad style. "Obama talks big on Equal Pay for women. But the Women in His Senate Office Make $0.83 on the Dollar," said the counterattack, which called Obama "all Talk."
Palin's image drove click-throughs for McCain/Palin fundraising ads seen in September, and the fundraising mission that month was supported by Republican National Committee ads asking people to "Invest in Victory."
But by October, the campaign was down to the wire, and its online ad team decided to throw almost all its weight behind search. The few display ads it did run were focused on persuading voters that McCain was their man. New display ads with issue-based themes showed up, many with a "Learn More" call-to-action. An ad displaying images of wind turbines, solar panels and an off-shore drilling island read, "An all of the above energy solution."
"Your home is the foundation of your life," stated an ad touting McCain's "Homeownership Resurgence Plan."
Many aimed to convince voters that Obama couldn't be trusted. "Obama says he didn't vote to increase taxes on people making $42,000 a year. But he did... Twice!" said one ad. Another tax-issue ad noted, "Obama voted for higher taxes 94 times. Come On Senator, Tell the Truth." Those ads and others even used colors and other elements that had become synonymous with the consistent Obama ad style. Some McCain ads even featured the Obama logo.
Support for Israel
McCain's display ads went on the attack throughout the campaign, implying, for instance, that Obama would go soft on Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad. The McCain camp ran millions and millions of ads earlier in the election season featuring Ahmedinajad's photo alongside Obama's, asking, "Is It OK to Meet Unconditionally with Anti-American Foreign Leaders?" Many of those ads were aimed at Jewish voters.
In September and October, Obama's campaign finally hit back in the hopes of ensuring Israel supporters of Obama's dedication to defending Israel. "As President, I will never compromise when it comes to Israel's Security," stated some ads. According to Nielsen, some of Obama's ads showed up on The Jerusalem Post in September and October.
The Iraq War became a backburner issue towards the end, and the campaigns' display ads reflected that. However, MoveOn PAC kept the flame alive in anti-McCain ads seen in September and October. "McCain to keep spending billions in Iraq while US economy tanks. Get the facts." The liberal group also pushed for signups and donations through Obama sticker, button, and T-shirt giveaways promoted in display ads.
The "four more years' message, equating McCain with President George W. Bush, continued to appear in Obama ads, and was backed up by Democratic National Committee ads linking to the DNC's JustMoreOfTheSame.com site in October. "John McCain voted with George Bush 90% of the time. Learn More," said the ads.
As the economy was on everybody's mind, another Obama ad supported a tax-related economic message also promoted through search ads. "Let's be clear. Barack Obama will cut taxes for 95% of working families," it read. Users could enter their annual income to calculate their "Obama Tax Cut." They got their answer on a special tax calculator page on the Obama site.
Joe the Plumber became synonymous with the tax issue, and though his name was a big component of Obama's and McCain's tax-related search ad keyword tactics, he also appeared in McCain display ads. "Are you 'Joe the Plumber'? Don't tax me for working hard," read a McCain ad.
The Dem's GOTV Hurricane
After months and months of McCain ads using issues like pork-barrel spending and high gas prices to build its list and spur donations, Obama's campaign had begun to use some issues in its display advertising, but like McCain's ads, most had a direct-response-oriented motive. For the Obama camp, it was all about GOTV, getting-out-the-vote. The bulk of their ads down the stretch were intended to get people registered, promote early voting, and help people find their polling places.
"I'm voting because the economy stinks," said a young voter in a video-enabled ad. 'I'm voting to end the war," said another. "Whatever your reason you don't need to wait till November to vote. Get everything that you need to vote early at VoteForChange.com," said the candidate himself in the ad.
Obama's registration calls-to-action subsided as early voting ads gained gale-force strength in October. Florida residents were in the eye of that ad hurricane, which drenched them with hundreds of millions of early voting ads. "Florida Early Vote," and "Florida Vote by Mail," were among the ubiquitous messages. Voters in Ohio, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, North Carolina, and New Mexico were also hit. Many "vote early" ad elements moved or popped when scrolled over. Some dynamically displayed the current date.
The Obama campaign even targeted voters outside the U.S., telling them to "Vote from Abroad," in ads that sent them to Democrats Abroad, a Web site run by the Democratic Party. At the very end, when early voting had ended, residents in Florida and other important states were told to "Find out where to vote. Get your polling place hours."
Ad images were supplied by Nielsen Online.
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Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.
March 19, 2014