GOP presidential frontrunner Herman Cain can't shake allegations of sexual harassment, and digital political consultants disagree on whether his campaign should use search advertising and other online efforts to counteract the negative media attention.
"Any candidate should be running search any time there's a scandal or their name is in the news, because a well executed search campaign allows them to appear above organic search results," said Peter Pasi, EVP at Republican digital firm Emotive.
Cain campaign ads asking people to "Support Herman Cain Today" are showing up when people search for the candidate's name. However, change that search to "Herman Cain sexual harassment," or "Herman Cain sex scandal," and the ads are nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, lots of recent news articles and other posts about the days-old scandal top organic search results.
Democratic political strategist Jeff Jacobs, president and creative director at NextGen Persuasion, believes the Cain camp should refrain from defending against the harassment claims in search ads. But, he said, he could "use search advertising to own some of the relevant search terms and direct that traffic to his site for other purposes," such as fundraising or gathering volunteer signups.
In other words, the campaign could target the same generic "Support Herman Cain" fundraising ads against scandal-related keywords. Cain should, "take that traffic because that traffic will be out there," added Jacobs, noting, "I would not try to engage in a persuasion campaign" with microsites or a specific landing page.
In 2008 before the presidential election, ads from the Obama for America campaign turned up on searches for "Obama Muslim" and "Obama Ayers", in reference to claims that the then-candidate for President is Muslim and he had connections to Weather Underground co-founder Bill Ayers.
"Barack Obama is a Christian. Get the facts at his official site," read one ad. An Ayers-related message said, "Obama Ayers Connection? FightTheSmears.com/Obama Don't Believe the Lies. Get Facts About Anti-Obama Swift Boating."
At the same time, the John McCain campaign chose not to counteract negative connections involving an investigation of McCain in relation to the 1989 savings and loan scandal. For one thing, there was a concern that a response effort like that could help perpetuate the bad press.
Indeed, some contend that if the Cain camp were to run ads defending against the harassment claims, they'd only ad fuel to the fire if mainstream media caught wind of a landing page or microsite dedicated to disputing the claims. Though Pasi from Emotive isn't one of them.
"I fundamentally disagree with that approach," he said. "I don't think you're creating momentum with search; you're capturing momentum."
Josh Koster, managing editor for Democratic digital firm Chong + Koster agrees that Cain should "have ads live on this." However, he and others wonder whether - without a clear message backed up with factual information as to why the sexual harassment claims are wrong - there would be much of an impact.
At this stage, the Cain team should not run scandal-related search ads, "until the campaign gets their facts straight," said Republican digital strategist Eric Frenchman. "It might take them too long to get a site up with a reasonable, fact-based response, and by then their campaign will be dead or the issue will blow over. I think the issue will blow over unless another campaign resurrects it and by then, I would hope they are well prepared with a response."
Cain's primary opponents appear to be steering clear of the scandal in their own ad targeting. "I don't think running search ads based on unproven allegations is a classy thing to do," said Pasi.
Meanwhile, Americans for Herman Cain, an unaffiliated political committee supporting the candidate, is coming to his defense. A new web video compares the treatment of Cain with that of Clarence Thomas during his controversial Supreme Court confirmation hearings. The group does not appear to be using online ads to drive traffic to the video though.
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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