This article is from the January issue of Total Politics
Here’s the bottom line: technology guarantees that British campaigns are about to get much more contrastive and aggressive, and your days of being basically free of negative video is over. And that’s a good thing.
The reason is simple. TV and computers will soon be the same box. In America, people now spend more time on the internet than watching TV. The internet offers a brilliant opportunity to deliver negative video to voters in a way that will work.
Americans approach political negative campaigning much like they do celebrity gossip – we claim no interest, but seek it out and soak it in. As Fleet Street taught the States, ‘salacious’ sells, and there is no question that negative advertising would work in Britain.
Accordingly, political professionals are tired of all the whining and moaning about negative advertising. Information is the basis of democracy, and it’s necessary for voters to know the good, the bad and the ugly about future leaders. It’s a fair guess that a candidate will not spell out the reasons he should not be elected, so it’s necessary for his opponent to do it. Negative campaigning works – if it didn’t, it would not be used.
Is anyone served by not knowing that a candidate may have voted against the same social programmes that he used to get through school or have his family fed as a child? Is it negative to point out that a candidate doesn’t pay his personal taxes while he’s voting to raise your taxes? No.
As a phrase, negative advertising has the wrong connotation, so the word ‘contrast’ is more accurate. One candidate supports X and the other doesn’t. One candidate opposes Y and the other does not. Is it wrong to spell out those differences? No, it’s simply a contrast and often a difference you can vote on.
Also, the internet allows professionals to target more effectively. Websites and blogs are generally visited by a certain demographic, and readily-available research provides the key information as to where to find which group. Conservatives, Liberals, moderates, environmentalists, Labour are easily found on the net.
The way to communicate online is evolving daily, but currently there are three most effective methods: pre-roll, Google search and Facebook ads. And the most effective way to communicate online is to have all three working hand-in-hand.
Pre-roll is the short video that one watches prior to getting the information requested. It’s the commercial you suffer through to get the free content you expect. Research indicates that the optimum length of time a person will watch a pre-roll ad is around 10 seconds. The key is having a timer on the bottom of the ad showing how long the ad lasts so that viewers recognise they only have a few seconds until the programme begins.
Pre-roll is the vehicle that will bring contrastive advertising to your country. There is no law against it and, as the TV and computer become the same screen, either the law must be changed or you have bona fide political TV commercials.
One of the beauties of pre-roll is the possibility of clicking on an ad and being redirected to another page. Until recently, the viewer was generally directed to a candidate’s website or a splash page, which is a website created specifically around a certain issue. But increasingly people are being directed to Facebook rather than any other website when they click through.
Facebook’s success doesn’t need to be explained, but what is most fascinating about the site is that all of the information you provide is immediately mined by advertisers. As important is the fact that we can determine not only your mindset from what you provide in your profile information, but also that of your friends. For example, if your Facebook friends belong to a myriad of liberal sites, we can assume you are liberal, even if you didn’t suggest so on your Facebook page. Campaign consultants then direct ads to the side of your Facebook page that corresponds to your profile. You are providing us with a goldmine of information with your online stats, and we are using it every time you go online.
The final – and perhaps most effective – way we find and target you on the internet is through Google search. We bid on and own search terms in a specific geographic region. It can be nationwide, but it can also be just your town or even your neighborhood. Once you type in a search word, we know you’re interested in a topic. For example, if you type ‘jobs’, we suspect you are looking for a job. We then place ads on your results page about jobs, which encourages you to click through to our site or Facebook page. When you click through, we mark you, in essence, with invisible ink and can then track you around the internet.
A campaign can collectively see where people travel on the net and can build a profile of those who click through on a certain word or term. The greatest beauty of Google search is that we can change the language of our advertisement repeatedly during the day to test which words or concepts work best. We are, in effect, running an online focus group, and often for virtually no outlay. It’s inexpensive, because you only pay Google when someone clicks on an ad. So it’s possible to have millions of impressions for free. An impression is also called an ‘eyeball’, in that people see an ad.
Using new media, we are able not only to reach a target audience better than before, but also to hold onto the people who pass through our electronic campaign. We know who they are, where to find them and what interests them.
The possibilities are breathtaking. These techniques are being improved and honed every month in the States, although TV will continue being the largest expenditure and greatest focus of our political campaigns.
But for yours, it’s a new day.
Dane Strother is a National Democratic media consultant in the US