NEW YORK Barack Obama Exposed. Over the past several months, phrases like this have appeared alongside articles referring to the Democratic presidential nominee on sites like WashingtonPost.com.
These contextually targeted ads -- clever or incendiary, depending upon your bent -- are the product of the conservative publisher Human Events, which has executed just the sort of potentially persuasive political campaign for which the Web would be a perfect platform. But so far, they represent an anomaly rather than the norm.
When it comes to Web ads and the '08 election, digital ad executives say they are disappointed, puzzled, even a little impatient when it comes to the light spending to date. Meanwhile, those with firsthand knowledge of the campaigns say that in spite of the Web proving a fund-raising gold mine (particularly for Sen. Obama), senior officials continue to doubt the medium as a get-out-the-vote vehicle.
Moritz Loew, senior director of national sales at MSNBC.com, said that though Obama and Sen. John McCain have run some banner and video ads, spending has not grown as fast as he had hoped. "This was not the year it all went digital," he said.
Similarly, CNN.com has run banners for the campaigns of Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, though nothing yet from McCain. "There's definitely more activity than four years ago," said Greg D'Alba, executive vp and COO, ad sales at CNN.
But for the most part, it's been quiet, as candidates slowly roll out dollars, rarely exceeding $100,000 per buy.
Though online ad spending is notoriously hard to track, reports from third-party researchers appear to confirm that Obama's spending is far ahead of McCain's -- but neither candidate has been pouring funds into the Web, exactly. For March, comScore's Ad Metrix tool found that Obama ran 18.1 million impressions, versus 7.2 million for McCain. To put it in perspective, McDonald's -- hardly a huge spender on the Web -- runs 300 million impressions in a single month, while top 10 advertisers like Netflix can run 5 billion.
Campaign sources say the anemic Web spend might be due to this election's high stakes, resulting in a risk-averse mentality. And, some suggest, officials tasked with allocating dollars to digital media may have limited power within their organizations.
"The Internet has never elected a candidate, but TV has," said one observer.
Sales execs also complain that the candidates' organizations can be tough to navigate. Some media buys come directly from the campaigns, while others may come from a variety of ad agencies. (Obama is said to have employed a half dozen agencies to date.)
Michael Bassick, vp, interactive marketing at MSHC Partners, a Democratic consulting agency, estimated that the candidates are allocating less than 2 percent of their total media investment to the Web. "It's likely to be another election cycle or three before we see real shifts," he said.
Insiders report most spending has targeted individual states or psychographics -- as Loew put it, "left-handed people in Toledo." That could bode well for ad networks, known for such targeting.
Michael Cassidy, president and CEO of Undertone Networks, said that after running nearly a dozen campaigns in 2004 for Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, "we were really optimistic." But to date, there's been lots of RFPs and little action. Some say networks are still paying for Advertising.com's mistaken placement of an ad for former Republican candidate Mitt Romney on Gay.com.
Search has proven to be the exception, with nearly all the candidates active. Lately, McCain has been more aggressive than Obama -- 5.4 million in May, versus Obama's 1.8 million, per Nielsen Online -- going so far as to run ads tied to searches for "Iraq war" and "gas prices."
Brian Boland, director of adCenter for Microsoft, said while search spending has increased dramatically since the beginning of the year, he's waiting to see whether candidates take advantage of some of the more sophisticated search-targeting tools. "We haven't seen the kind of market-leading work yet," he said.
Peter Greenberger, head of Google's elections and advocacy team, said he expects candidates to move beyond focusing on keywords -- ideal for reaching those users that are already politically engaged-toward contextual ads. That would include running ads adjacent to issue-specific content, such as stories on health care -- much like tactics employed by Human Events. In fact, Vibrant Media, which sells contextual ads, said it's been in talks with Obama's camp about implementing similar efforts.
That arena would seem to be ripe for advocacy groups and "527s" such as MoveOn.org and the Swift Boat Veterans group from four years ago. But to date, "they're keeping their powder dry," said Greenberger.
Despite the recent inactivity, some are optimistic about the rest of the campaign, particularly given that Obama's pockets are flush with contributions via the Web.
"I think a ton is going to happen over next few months," said Danny Fishman, president of Broadband Enterprises, which ran local video spots for Obama in Ohio and Texas.
That would follow recent history, with campaigns typically spending heaviest during the final two months of the race.
But, as CNN's D'Alba put it, "There is no tradition here."