Web-Based Ad Buying Systems Serve Candidates’ Penchant for TV

ClickZ_Campaign08_katefinal.jpgThousands of dollars’ worth of TV spots in support of one unnamed presidential candidate are set to go on-air through a new Web service from ad management service WideOrbit.

The company’s VoterVoter.com system was created to allow individuals to place pre-existing or custom TV spots across local and even national stations and cable networks. The service and another from Spot Runner that’s aimed at political advertisers could mean ad spending through Web-based tools for buying TV ads will exceed the tiny amount candidates and their supporters are expected to invest directly in online ads this election season.

According to Eric Mathewson, founder and CEO of WideOrbit and VoterVoter.com, “several hundred thousand dollars” of TV ad insertions, all for one presidential hopeful, have been submitted through the system, expected to launch today. “But that’s not by design; that’s just the way it turned out,” he continued. The company provides software to manage sales, trafficking and billing of ads running on hundreds of TV and radio stations, cable networks, and in mobile and out-of-home environments.

The VoterVoter site has a handful of TV spots created by independent TV producers available for anyone to choose and target based on a city, state or national level, day-part, and other demographic data. But the company is hoping many more will be added to its library by amateur producers or Hollywood types.

“I think there are people out there, particularly in the creative and advertising world… that would like to create better messaging for the candidates,” said Mathewson.

Spot Runner, a Web system used to design ready-made locally-targeted television spots, is working with “a few dozen” political advertisers, including Erik Fleming, Mississippi’s Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, according to the firm’s VP Communications Rosabel Tao. Many of its customizable ads are based on issues like the environment, or border security, such as one that indicates the candidate “knows how to keep our communities safe, secure… and American.”

Spot Runner’s Political Advertising Program enables targeting by political district in conjunction with other data such as age or household income. As with the VoterVoter service, it lets advertisers vary ad creative depending on the audience or region ads are targeted to.

Spot Runner and similar online services “can give the campaigns an advantage,” said Jaime Bowers, new media director at National Media, a full service media agency for Republican campaigns. She doesn’t think they pose a threat to agencies like National Media. “I think it’s a completely different service,” she said. “They don’t substitute for the experience and wisdom of an agency.”

Both ad buying systems are open to anyone, not just candidate campaigns or advocacy groups. That prospect may frighten some candidate campaigns. While the Web has been flooded with blog commentary, homemade viral videos, e-mails and other content created by individuals to influence elections, the ability for lone supporters or relatively small groups of people to easily place ads on TV takes the lack of control inherent in the Web to a new level.

To Spot Runner and VoterVoter, it’s all about “democratization” of the political process. “There’s always been very broad discourse on the candidates… with blogs, multiple news sources, Web sites, etc.,” said Mathewson. “We’re simply enabling freedom of speech rights.” Still, the fact that such systems could facilitate TV ad buys by operations such as 527 groups, known for negative and influential campaigns, could create controversy.

Although he plans to promote the service to individuals at first, Mathewson didn’t rule out going after organizations such as 527s. “We do have designs on a much broader swath of the political populace,” he told ClickZ News.

TV spots delivered through these systems must be disclosed in the manner required of all political ads. For instance, the anti-Barack Obama ad from VoterVoter that declares, “He’s change we can’t believe in,” also must indicate who paid for its placement. In addition to disclosure requirements, VoterVoter takes care of Federal Election Commission filings required of political advertisers. Because individuals must disclose their involvement with a candidate campaign, the firm doesn’t seem too concerned about rogue political staffers placing ads through its system.

Costs vary to use both platforms, though Mathewson said VoterVoter will take the traditional 15 percent cut from TV stations running its ads, and will require a minimum expenditure of about $1,000 by advertisers. Spot Runner ad creative rates start at $499 and go beyond $15,000.

Although Spot Runner enables digital advertising, it hasn’t seen much interest in Web ads from its political advertisers since introducing its system in beta last year. VoterVoter expects to roll out other media options, too, but decided TV was the logical place to start. That conclusion comes as no surprise considering the dearth of online political ad spending, and the fact that donations raised on the Web are often used to advertise on television. Reports indicate online political ad spending in the 2008 election could be as low as $20 million.

According to Tao, many political advertisers don’t even buy Spot Runner ads through the Web site. “A lot of our candidates actually call us,” she said.

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