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New Media Could Force Creative Races

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WASHINGTON With more campaign money likely to be spent on new media than ever before, candidates for the White House in 2008 may be forced to display unprecedented creativity in both their ads and overall strategies, political experts said.

If candidates hope to have their messages distributed virally—or even catch the attention of consumers accustomed to being entertained and "engaged" by advertising—they must craft messages that viewers would want to share with others.

"The placement of advertising is less important now," said Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for George W. Bush's 2004 campaign. "You have to be creative because it will not [go] viral unless it is creative and has some sort of excitement."

That means even the traditional mudslinging will need to be more memorable and clever than some of the 2004 presidential standouts, such as the infamous anti-John Kerry "windsurfing" spot or "Swiftboat Veterans for Truth."

Madison Avenue creatives with political campaign experience agree. "The message should be unexpected, surprising and communicate in new ways," said Ellis Verdi, president of DeVito/Verdi, who worked on Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign. "You need to find ways where people think your message is smart.

Creativity is huge, and it is a major strategy difference," said Roy Spence, CEO of Omnicom Group's GSD&M, who is providing strategic counsel to Clinton's campaign. "Messages have to be two-way because people, more than ever before, want in on the conversation. "All things being equal, whomever uses the medium of the Internet better than the others will win."

With candidates now taking the Internet and new media more seriously than ever—witnessed by the slew of candidates already using Web video, YouTube or online chat to throw their hats into the ring—how campaigns handle everything from Web TV to social networking sites will become an integral part of their campaign strategy.

"This part of the campaign is no longer going to be the ugly stepsister," said Russ Schriefer, director of media for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who formed a presidential exploratory committee in November. "We will discuss how the Web and new media will interact with our campaign strategy. It will not be, 'Gee, there is a kid who understands the Web and he can go do something for it and that will be cute.'"

Some of what Schriefer is talking about can already be seen on the Web site of McCain's exploratory committee (www.exploremccain.com), which encourages viewers to create their own site to promote the senator and help raise money for the campaign.

The Web's experimental nature is considered a valuable tool for candidates.

"The Internet is a fabulous place for testing commercial and political ideas, and I agree that there will be more attempts at clever viral marketing than there have ever been before," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. "If it doesn't work, you can just pull it down and go on to your next experiment."

How candidates use social-networking sites will say something about who they are as a candidate, Rainie said. John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, took a greater risk posting his announcement video on YouTube, where viewers could also post and read negative comments about the candidate. Sen. Clinton, D-N.Y., put her video announcing the formation of her presidential exploratory committee on her Web site, where the message could be more controlled. And Barack Obama, the Democratic senator from Illinois, hired the Internet TV services provider Brightcove, which allows his campaign to send videos to sites of his choosing.

The Obama video comes with tools where viewers can e-mail a link of the video or to imbed the video on their own Web site. "The face-to-face town meeting has always been an important part of the electoral process, but in a nation with 300 million people that intimacy is harder to achieve," said Adam Berrey, Brightcove's vp of marketing and strategy. "With the internet you can move that intimacy into a broader digital form."

With overall campaign spending predicted to exceed $1 billion this cycle, Internet experts like Rainie predict there will be "records broken in every media channel."

Dowd, who is now a partner with ViaNovo, which does corporate branding work, said that new media spending could increase its share of that pie from about 5 percent (roughly what the Bush campaign spent in the last presidential election) to 15 or 20 percent. But traditional media will still receive the lion's share of campaign dollars. "It is still a TV business," Verdi said. "TV still puts the politician in front of people, and their personality and image are more controllable. That is the advantage over all other media."