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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Political Camps Use Search Engines To Run New Kind Of Negative Ad

MediaPost Publications Home of MediaDailyNews, MEDIA and OMMA Magazines
Political Camps Use Search Engines To Run New Kind Of Negative Ad
by Shankar Gupta and Wendy Davis, Friday, Apr 8, 2005 7:00 AM EST

WHILE SEARCH MARKETING IS RESPONSIBLE for much of the resurgence of online advertising, politicians have been relatively slow to purchase sponsored search links. But activity on Google this week indicates that search engines might play a more significant role in political races in the future. Earlier this week, the 2006 gubernatorial campaign of New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer placed an ad on Google that appeared as a sponsored link on the keyword "AIG," an insurance group Spitzer is investigating. The 31 cent-per-click ad was taken down the next day, with Spitzer's spokesman, Darren Dopp, calling the purchase a mistake.

"He's got a carefully guarded reputation for always doing the right thing and this could undercut that," Dopp said, adding that Spitzer learned of the ad only after receiving calls from the press Wednesday afternoon.

By Thursday, the backlash had already begun, with at least two anti-Spitzer ads appearing as sponsored results for AIG on Google. One, visible on the site Wednesday evening and posted on the blog of search engine watcher John Battelle, had text condemning both Google and Spitzer for "overstepping their boundaries for political and monetary gain" and contained a link to the URL, "" A second ad criticized Google in its text and then contained a link to the URL "beconsistentspitzer.COM."

Neither URL worked, at least as of Thursday morning; by the afternoon, both ads had been removed from Google's search results pages for AIG. Google declined to identify the advertiser or advertisers, and declined to state whether it had taken down the ads. But Google's AdWords policy requires that sponsored links lead to a landing page with content relevant to the keyword that triggered the ad. A Google spokesperson said the company monitors and reviews ads, but there is sometimes a delay before violations are noticed.

Some say that the week's developments, while relatively small in scale, might signal that political campaigns increasingly recognize a potential in search engine marketing. In last year's elections--the first time major political campaigns made widespread use of the Internet--nearly all of the Web advertising was banner ads, with search ads representing a "very incremental" part of the budget, said John Durham, president of the Republican consulting firm Pericles Consulting.

Democratic political consultant Michael Bassik agreed that search was not a central part of the 2004 presidential campaigns' strategies, but said there was at least one occasion when someone--whose identity remains unknown--used a search engine to run a negative Kerry ad. The advertiser bought the keyword "waffle" to trigger a link to the John Kerry 2004 campaign site, poking fun at the Massachusetts senator's alleged propensity to change his mind.

As with the anti-Spitzer ads, the purpose of the keyword purchase was unrelated to driving traffic to a Web site; rather, the goal apparently was to convey a negative image of a political candidate via search engine. This week, the anti-Spitzer ads went even further, because they didn't even contain working links; rather, the aim was to get lines of politically charged text in front of searchers.

While Google doesn't intend for AdWords to be used in this fashion --a search buyer would have a hard time arguing that "waffle" relates to the landing page of a Kerry campaign site--some political consultants like search advertising precisely because a creative use of keyword buys allows them to respond nearly instantaneously to a wide variety of issues. "The Internet is great, especially as a rapid response mechanism, to really respond in real time to news and events that are happening," Bassik said. "Based on Google's nature as a real time advertising mechanism, it's no surprise that someone would've purchased this term and pointed it to an error site," he added in reference to the anti-Spitzer buy.

Bassik also said that search buys in general are becoming more commonplace among politicians, citing the Virginia 2005 gubernatorial race. If a Google user searches for Republican contender Jerry Kilgore, a sponsored link to Democrat Tim Kaine's election site pops up in addition to the Republican's ad.

Republican consultant Durham added that the Spitzer campaign's purchase of AIG was "brilliant," despite the chance that Spitzer's detractors might argue the ad casts doubt on the Attorney General's motives for high-profile investigations of companies like AIG. "Just as it's brilliant," he said, "it's also controversial."


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