As the 2010 election season heated up, media buyers in California said prices for TV, online, and other media were increasing and inventory was becoming scarce. Despite the fact that there were several statewide races and ballot measures in California, many blamed one candidate: Meg Whitman.
The Republican gubernatorial candidate’s campaign used a variety of display and video ad messages – as well as custom ads on Pandora, splashy ads on LATimes.com, SFGate, and Hulu, and a controversial e-mail sent to DailyCandy subscribers – to sway voters, counteract attacks, and drive people to the polls.
In all, Whitman – who lost her bid for California governor to the state’s former Governor Jerry Brown, spent $3 million on digital advertising efforts, according to Smart Media Group, the firm that handled Whitman’s online ads. It is most likely the largest online ad buy of any statewide candidate campaign yet. By comparison, last year’s New Jersey governor hopefuls each spent well under $1 million on digital ads. And this year, in its online get-out-the-vote push aimed at key voting groups in competitive races across the country, the Democratic National Committee spent $2.5 million.
Considering Whitman’s tech industry background as former CEO of eBay, it’s not surprising her campaign team showed a commitment to digital media integration. According to Kyle Roberts, Smart Media Group president, the online and traditional media buys “worked off the same media plan.” Roberts and Smart Media’s digital media manager John Britten worked closely with the Whitman camp’s Media and Marketing Manager Alexa Andrews and Art Director Richard De La Rosa, explained Roberts and Britten.
Britten said he communicated with Andrews “five or six times a day” to discuss the digital ads.
However, while the Whitman camp dropped millions on online ads and took a relatively innovative approach to digital, the big spender allocated only around 3 percent of the overall $100 million ad budget to the Web. Indeed, most 2010 election campaigns spent 5 percent or less of their ad budgets online, regardless of a general increase in the acknowledgement of the Web’s importance for political camaigns.
Women were a key target of Whitman’s ads. As the general election campaign kicked into gear during the late summer, half of the display ads delivered to RSS feed readers through the Pheedo network, and 40 percent of the ads placed on streaming music site Pandora, were targeted to women in California. A display ad seen in the TodayShow.com Parenting feed, for instance, stated, “Women are a driving force in California.” Other ads featuring messages about taxes or building a new California were targeted to news and politics feed readers.
Unlike most political ads which are geared toward generating signups or raising funds, the campaign focused on building Whitman’s brand as a new kind of leader, and persuading voters that she could bring jobs and a real change to the state.
Another attempt to target women online led the media seller to swear never to run another political ad. In late September, daily shopping deal newsletter DailyCandy delivered a dedicated e-mail message to its subscribers in California.
“We all know someone who has lost a job or is struggling to make ends meet. Maybe it’s you. Californians want jobs, good schools, and a government that works for us,” said the message. “Visit my website, MegWhitman.com, to learn more about my story, positive solutions, and plan to fix our state.”
The e-mail resulted in negative comments from DailyCandy subscribers, prompting the company to tell The Atlantic that it would no longer carry political ads in its dedicated e-mails. The effort wasn’t all negative for the campaign though. “The day we dropped that e-mail we saw a huge spike in site traffic,” said Britten.
Battling Brown’s Union Backers
Like some DailyCandy subscribers, typically liberal San Francisco voters do not normally embrace Republican messages, which is why GOP candidates usually don’t spend a lot of money targeting San Francisco voters. As part of its “Jerry Fails” effort, the Whitman campaign ran a TV spot on SFGate – the online home of the San Francisco Chronicle – for about four days in late September. The interstitial style video unit appeared as users visited the news site home page. The ad featured a clip from a 1992 debate between President-to-be Bill Clinton and Brown, in which Clinton said Brown “doesn’t tell the people the truth.”
“We wanted to run it in the San Francisco market [where there were] a lot of on-the-fence voters that may respect Bill Clinton,” said Britten, adding that the campaign “really wanted to push” the spot in San Francisco.
Another prong of the Whitman campaign was what Roberts called “counterpunching.” Union groups like the California Labor Federation and others backed Brown, so Whitman aimed to portray Brown as a puppet of the unions. As the election season drew to a close in the last week of October, a rich media ad enabled by EyeWonder on LATimes.com prompted users to rollover to reveal Brown as he emerged from behind a curtain, dangling on puppet strings.
“Unions have spent over $20 million against Meg Whitman,” said the ad, as the Brown puppet hung from the banner unit, hovering above LATimes home page content. The ad culminated with a video.
Whitman also battled scandal during her failed bid for governor. When a former housekeeper emerged to claim Whitman knew she was an illegal immigrant when she was working for her, a media frenzy ensued. The campaign took a measured response online. When the story broke, a banner ad ran on Drudge Report to “gauge the level of responsiveness,” and essentially test the ad in case the story blew up, according to Britten. The campaign also “put more money toward paid keywords to buy [terms related to the scandal] and that was good for a few days,” until the story died down, said Britten.
Zip Code Targeting for Early Voting
The third goal of the online campaign was to promote early voting and election day voting. Starting in late September, the Whitman camp targeted likely Republican voters online by Zip code, reminding them of early voting by mail. In particular, ads targeted Zip codes with a high probability of Republican voters and low turnout probability. “That became a key area to make sure no Republican was sitting this out,” said Britten.
In all, not including Google and Facebook display ads and search ad buys, the Whitman camp ran more than 300 million standard Flash ad impressions using more than 40 different display ad creative concepts and more than 12 video ads, according to Britten.