Conservative political and advocacy group American Crossroads expects to spend far more in 2012 than the $70 million it spent in the 2010 election, and a higher percentage of that will go to online. Just how much moves to the web will be determined in part by the group's ability to run attack ads on Facebook.
The organization - which is split between a nonprofit organization and a political 527 group - expects to spend $120 million in the 2012 season across traditional and digital media on issue advocacy campaigns, along with political campaigns that will most likely attack Democrats, according to Jonathan Collegio, communications director for American Crossroads.
"I can't give an estimate of what the breakdown will be, but an increased percentage will be spent online," said Collegio. In its independent expenditure campaigns, the American Crossroads 527 arm can advocate for or against candidates.
The group ran an online campaign leading up to this week's congressional special election in Western New York. The video-centric effort served as a testing ground for its 2012 online efforts.
"Jack claims he's for American jobs but in the past he invested his millions in companies that shipped jobs overseas," states a TV ad from the group that was also targeted online to likely conservative voters in New York's 26th District. The organization worked with Republican digital agency Targeted Victory to handle the online video ads, which aimed the mud-slinging spot at older conservative voters using in-banner and pre-roll video units. In some cases, display ads accompanied the pre-roll ads.
The hope was to persuade people considering independent candidate Jack Davis - who hinged his campaign to the tea party movement and threatened to take votes away from Republican Jane Corwin - against voting for him. Democrat Kathy Hochul won Tuesday's election.
American Crossroads paid Targeted Victory $50,000 - around 7 percent of its NY-26 campaign budget - which totaled approximately $690,000, according to recent Federal Election Commission reports analyzed by ClickZ. The online ads ran for 13 days leading up to and including election day on May 24. In New York's 20th congressional district special election in 2009, Democrat Scott Murphy's campaign spent $30,000 on Google network display and Facebook ads targeting the district. The ads ran for three days into election day, and Murphy won the election.
The Facebook Factor
If American Crossroads allocates 7 percent of its planned $120 million spend for the 2012 election cycle to digital, it could devote more than $8 million to online ads. One thing that could hold American Crossroads back: Facebook. Collegio said the organization is considering the possibility that Facebook might ban negative ads from the site, in which case, the group - which focuses on negative advertising - would spend less than it might otherwise. "As Facebook determines how to integrate more video advertising, it remains to be seen whether or not they'll censor...negative or contrast ads," said Collegio. "I think they're worried that barking political ads may not be good for business."
He added, "It's very difficult legally for non-party organizations to run positive ads." Because American Crossroads and other outside groups are not able to coordinate with campaigns they may support, said Collegio, "It makes it very difficult to do any positive advertising."
Facebook spokespeople declined to comment regarding the possibility that political ads advocating against a candidate may not be allowed on the site in the future. However, the firm's ad guidelines indicate that at least some types of political attack ads are currently accepted. Facebook ad guidelines prohibit "Content that advocates against any organization, person, or group of people, with the exception of candidates running for public office."
The Democratic answer to American Crossroads - a recently-established independent expenditure group called House Majority PAC - ran TV ads attacking Corwin, but it is unclear whether the organization did any online advertising in conjunction with the NY-26 race.
A new Web video from American Crossroads suggests that unions that backed President Obama's healthcare reform could be exempt from complying with it. Videos like it, and others that directly advocate against Obama and other Democratic candidates can be expected from the group as the 2012 election nears.
"Especially in an environment where Democrats really have the advantage in online technologies, we're working to catch up with new strategies and technologies that will level the playing field."
Group Ignored Google, Facebook in NY-26
The American Crossroads NY-26 web campaign was unique among online ad campaigns - political and otherwise. There was no search advertising, and no display ads on Facebook – both common for political and advocacy campaigns. The group didn’t buy any ads direct from local news sites - a somewhat common practice leading up to a local election. Instead, American Crossroads ran online video advertising almost exclusively, and the majority of those ads, according to Targeted Victory Partner Michael Beach, were expandable in-banner video units. All were targeted through audience data and ad targeting firm Lotame, which Targeted Victory has partnered with to develop a platform for targeting video ads for voter persuasion or mobilization.
Targeted Victory "did not consider any kind of direct buys," said Beach, because the goal was to find the target audience in the lowest cost media possible "to get the biggest bang for their buck."
Because the primary goal of the American Crossroads video ads was to get people to watch the video to persuade them not to vote for Davis, the group wanted to garner the highest number of clicks to view the video as possible through the fewest number of ad impressions.
"The challenge with political advertising is getting viewers to watch attack ads and negative advertising. It's difficult to get click-throughs," said Collegio. That was one reason the group chose not to run search advertising. Although it has done so in the past for fundraising efforts, he said search ads are less effective when it comes to enticing a user to click on a negative message.
Collegio said he expects American Crossroads to work with Targeted Victory through 2012, and called the NY-26 campaign "a very useful experience" intended "mostly to experiment with and engage new web technologies for the future."
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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.
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