TOPICS > Nation

Cyber Ads

February 20, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: Millions of computer users have been targeted by a pair of recent cyber attacks — not from any virus or worm, but from the campaigns of President Bush and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the Democratic front-runner.

The opening salvo came from the Bush-Cheney reelection camp in an effort to define Kerry before the general election. In a first for a presidential race, it sent a Web-exclusive advertisement via e-mail to 6 million supporters, attacking the senator as a tool of special interests.

SPOKESPERSON, Bush-Cheney reelection ad: “John Kerry.”

SEN. JOHN KERRY, Bush-Cheney reelection ad: “I have a message for the influence peddlers and the special interests: We’re coming; you’re going.”

SPOKESPERSON, Bush-Cheney reelection ad: Sounds good. “Special interests.” More special interest money than any other senator? How much? Who? For what? Nominations and donations coincided? Wait. “Watchdog groups.” Facts. Kerry, brought to you by the special interests. Millions from executives at HMOs, telecoms, drug companies. Ka-ching! “Unprincipled?”

SEN. JOHN KERRY, Bush-Cheney reelection ad: “I have a message for the influence peddlers and the special interests. And the special interests … special interests.”

TERENCE SMITH: The Kerry campaign returned fire, sending its response to 300,000 backers and asking each recipient to forward this ad to ten friends.

SPOKESMAN, Kerry campaign ad: He’s taken $3.2 million from big oil and gas companies and let America’s worst polluters rewrite our environmental laws. He’s taken $1.4 million from drug companies and pushed through a $140 billion giveaway for the pharmaceutical industry.

He’s taken $8 million from big banks and investment firms and just told us that outsourcing jobs to other countries is good for America. Enron has been his single biggest contributor — over $600,000. Who’s the politician who’s taken more special interest money than anyone in history? The same one who’s attacking John Kerry’s record because he can’t defend his own.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, Kerry campaign ad: “I’m John Kerry, and I approved this message, because together we can defeat George Bush and the powerful special interests.”

TERENCE SMITH: Senator Kerry endorsed his ad; President Bush did not vouch for his.

Unlike television spots, there is no legal requirement to do so with Internet ads.

TERENCE SMITH: For more on these ads, I’m joined by Jonah Seiger, visiting fellow at George Washington University, who spent the last decade developing Internet-based political and public affairs campaigns, and Ken Goldstein, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin. He studies political advertising for a project funded by the Pew Charitable trusts, which also supports the NewsHour’s media unit. Welcome to you both.

Ken Goldstein well, take us through these ads, these cyber ads. They come as e-mails. Are they also available on the candidate’s Web site?

KEN GOLDSTEIN: You can go to the candidate’s Web site and click on it and download it or play it right on the Web site as well.

TERENCE SMITH: To whom do they send these ads? I mean this list of 6 million people that the Bush-Cheney campaign has.

KEN GOLDSTEIN: That’s an impressive number. And I think it’s something we might want to talk about that the Bush-Cheney campaign is able to gather 6 million e-mail addresses.

But these ads have been sent to core, core supporters and I think the Bush-Cheney campaign and the Bush forces knew they were getting the brunt of the attack in the paid media of the Democratic candidates, and the free media and they needed to do something to reassure their base. This is one way to reassure their base. In addition, it’s another way to get a little free publicity.

TERENCE SMITH: Jonah — isn’t there some element of preaching to the choir here if these people are already people who have contacted the Bush-Cheney or Kerry campaigns?

JONAH SEIGER: Yes, certainly but there are two elements, and Ken touched on one. One is the free media dimension and the fact that we’re talking about this, and the national media have been talking about it, has enabled the campaign to get a bang for their buck.

TERENCE SMITH: So there’s a multiplier effect.

JONAH SEIGER: Exactly. And also a multiplier effect among the recipients of these messages. They can forward that link to their friends or their colleagues or even just talk about it with their friends and colleagues.

It has a way of filtering through their networks to spread the message much farther than the actual list.

TERENCE SMITH: This 6 million number of names; compare that to other campaigns or similar projects.

JONAH SEIGER: Like Ken, I was surprised to hear that number when the bush campaign revealed it.

For the last eight or nine months, we have been cooing about Howard Dean’s online successes. He managed to create a constituency of 600,000 e-mail addresses.


JONAH SEIGER: A tenth the size of the Bush list. I’m not personally aware of exactly how they created that list of 6 million.

I’m pretty certain the Kerry campaign like the Dean campaign built its list one at a time from people coming to their Web site and affirmatively requesting to receive e-mail from the campaign. That may be true with the Bush campaign. I just don’t know.

TERENCE SMITH: Ken Goldstein, I assume these are very cost effective when compared to television advertising.

KEN GOLDSTEIN: Exactly. Their cost is really only the production cost of making the ad and it’s virtually free to get it out there. And as we’ve said now a couple times, they’re getting this multiplier effect. In one sense, it is one of the oldest tricks in the books. But with the Internet it is a little easier.

In the previous years, candidates would make an ad, hold a press conference — and it was sort of like Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football — it seemed that the media would fall for it every time and report that there was going to be a massive advertising buy and when you checked it, the ad only aired a couple of times, but the free media coverage, the free media buzz, was so big, they got tremendous bang for their buck.

Here they’re also getting the free media buzz and they’re sending it to core supporters and then they don’t have to hold the press conference and they don’t even have to air it one time.

TERENCE SMITH: Jonah Seiger, is it an effective strategy as a campaign tool?

JONAH SEIGER: Yes, certainly. And I think what is flagged by this and what we’ll see more of is the opportunity to recycle the ads across media.

I was particularly struck by the Kerry ad which require included the required FEC disclaimer, the candidate saying, “I’m John Kerry and I approve of this message.” That ad could be repurposed for television and also placed online like the Microsoft network. MSN has a broadband capability now. They could put it ad out in different places across the media landscape to ensure broad distribution of that message.

So I think this is a foreshadowing of what you’ll see more of in 2004.

TERENCE SMITH: You’ll see it in this campaign.

JONAH SEIGER: I think so. The Bush campaign has indicated this is the first in a series of ads.

TERENCE SMITH: Ken Goldstein, let’s analyze the content of these ads. First the Bush-Cheney ad, which is going after Senator Kerry and his … their allegations of his connections to special interest. Effective?

KEN GOLDSTEIN: You know, at first I wasn’t a big fan of the ad, but on further review, I actually do like it.

It uses some classic elements, a female voice, a curious skeptical curious voice that walks a potential viewer, potential voter, through a number of steps. One of the big things that candidates and campaigns and ad guys and ad women are going to struggle with in this cycle is we are going to see advertising targeted very, very few states. Fifteen, 16, 17 states. Everyone is going to be up. There are also going to be Senate campaigns and House campaigns in some of the states and the goal is going to be to get out of the clutter.

This method of typing into a search engine different words about John Kerry and shockingly finding all this information, I think is something that could shine through the clutter. Now President Bush also is, as the Kerry ad points out quite succinctly, is also someone who has taken a fair amount of special interest money and corporate money — significantly more than Kerry, but I think what the Bush campaign is hoping to get the issue out there and voters are going to go, “Kerry took special interest as well, Bush took special interest. They both took special interest. They’re both politicians; now I’m going on to issue number two.”

The Bush campaign is trying to neutralize it. They’re not going to win on special interest money with John Kerry but maybe this ad is the first step towards getting them on to a different topic which is something they desperately need to do.

TERENCE SMITH: Jonah Seiger.

JONAH SEIGER: Ken’s analysis may be right on but I think it is very risky for the Bush campaign to come out with such a strong message on attacking Kerry on special interest given their own vulnerabilities. The Kerry campaign fired back right away and was able to, as Ken said, neutralize the issue. But also it shows a little something about what the Bush campaign is worried about and thinking about to come after Kerry so hard so and so quickly. He is not even the nominee yet.

TERENCE SMITH: Ken Goldstein, let me ask you this to show you my naiveté. You said a woman’s voice, you pointed it out, a skeptical voice. What is the significance of it being a woman’s voice verses a man’s voice?

KEN GOLDSTEIN: We’ve — at the Wisconsin Advertising Project — coded thousands and thousands of advertisements and negative advertisements over the last few years and most of the negative advertisements tend to use a woman’s voice. I’ve spoken with ad makers and they feel it softens the blow a little bit. The skeptical voice also softens the attack a bit.

Empirical question: I’ve never seen the evidence that woman’s voice doing the negative ad is that much more effective than the man’s voice, but it is certainly conventional wisdom among ad makers.

TERENCE SMITH: Jonah Seiger, do you expect the cyber ads to be in the main edgier and sharper and more negative than those that go out more generally on television?

JONAH SEIGER: Potentially yes, and I think that after the interest in this first salvo wears off, this won’t be as newsworthy. There will be as much of this going on from the campaigns at all levels but it won’t make the NewsHour. And so I do think that in this medium, our experience has been that things that have a little more edge, generally humor is very effective.

Part of the goal here is to get people to send this on inside of their own networks, the recipients can, as we’ve said, be force multipliers for the message.

In research that has been done by the George Washington University and others, we found consistently that the things that people forward to their friends, generally are funny things. And so I do think that obviously the nature of the medium impacts the message and I think we’ll see things that are built for this medium more likely.

TERENCE SMITH: Ken Goldstein, who holds these ads accountable in terms of accuracy and fairness? I mean they’re not regulated, are they, the way ads on television are?

KEN GOLDSTEIN: They’re not regulated, but who holds accuracy and fairness for ads on television? It’s mostly the press. And in the same way that there are ad watches, in other ways that advertising, paid advertising on broadcast television is vetted, I think these will get vetted as well.

One crucial thing to keep in mind is — this is interesting now; this is the Spanish civil war of TV advertising.

President Bush and his campaign is sitting on $100 million. And they needed to get a message out, they needed to stop some of the bleeding and reassure some core supporters.

This is going to be a trickle of what we are going to see. We are going to see a massive advertising buy by the Bush forces in the next couple of weeks and then we are going to see a massive advertising war in the fall. This is going to be an interesting factor in the 2004 election I think it is a way of communicating and reassuring core supporters and fairly cheap and efficient way of communicating and reassuring core supporters.

But the big dollars and the big effect and where the big guns are going to be blazing is still going to be on broadcast television.

TERENCE SMITH: Ken Goldstein, Jonah Seiger, thank you both very much.