Why Targeted Online Political Ads Can Be Dangerous To A Campaign

from the election-season dept

As the campaign season is in full swing, you may be seeing more of those wonderfully annoying political advertisements showing up on social media pages and other sites. It seems like common sense at this point that, to some degree or another, the majority of Americans would like to keep the government from spying on us, but the private companies that manage political campaigns find themselves in the same boat. The difference is that far from just watching, those private companies are putting out those targeted advertisements and, according to a University Of Pennsyvania study, people absolutely despise those ads (pdf). Some highlights from the study:

  • 86% of Americans say they do not want “political advertising tailored to your interests.” Somewhat smaller majorities also said they don't want ads for products and services (61%) or news (56%) tailored to their interests.
  • 85% agreed “If I found out that Facebook was sending me ads for political candidates based on my profile information that I had set to private, I would be angry.”
  • More than 3/4 said they wouldn't return to a website if they knew if was sharing information about them with political advertisers.
  • 70% say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate they support if they found out that their campaign was using Facebook to send ads to friends of that person saying they “like” that candidate's Facebook page.
  • And two-thirds said their likelihood of voting for a candidate would decrease if they found out they were tailoring messages to them and their neighbors by purchasing information about their online activities, and then sending them different messages based on what might appeal to each.

In case you missed it, the recurring theme in most of those results is some flavor of the phrase “if they found out,” which makes me thankful that most people are ignorant of how much of the above is already occurring on the websites people are visiting every day, otherwise nobody would vote for anyone. But the overall point is that people hate the idea of targeted political ads because it feels like an invasion, even more so (per the above results) than corporate ads. TechPresident, which covered the study, was surprised at how dismissive political ad companies were of the results.

Rich Masterson, Chairman of one such company, Campaign Grid, responded:

“The Annenberg study is interesting but raises more questions then it answers. From a methodology standpoint the researchers never asked respondents if they were registered to vote and whether or not they voted in the last election. Regrettably a majority of Americans don't show up at the polls because they have become disaffected by the process. It's unclear if the respondents are the same people who don't show up at the polls or if they are in fact engaged in the process. Secondly, the researchers made little to no effort to inform the survey respondents that the technology used for targeting is, in fact anonymous. The presumption that an individual's privacy is violated would lead one to assume the results would be negative. Lastly, there are many surveys that indicate Americans do not like negative campaign advertising, exercise or healthy diets. The fact that Americans do not like these things does not make them bad.”

Let's paraphrase that paragraph and boil it down to his three points in order to highlight the problem: so many people are disenfranchised with the political process that most don't go to the polls (or vote), people would supposedly react differently if they were told that their privacy was being invaded for a positive end result, and just because people hate the way most campaigns conduct themselves doesn't make that conduct bad. It's an incredible full-circle paragraph, where we go from the problem being disenfranchised voters to the proud assertion that the very things Masterson's company is doing to disenfranchise them aren't bad. Oy.

But the other problem is one Masterson touched upon, but is better highlighted by a response from Jim Walsh and Chris Massicotte, executives at DSPolitical, another political ad agency:

“It is understandable that Americans think that they don't want political advertising tailored to them when asked directly. But the simple fact is, and as this report points out, political advertisers have been tailoring messages to Americans since the beginning of the modern political campaign. When cable TV began political advertisers would choose what channels to advertise on based on their desired demographics and sometimes tailoring different ads on different channels. Tailored online advertising is not very different from tailored direct mail, which has proven very effective.”

This is exactly wrong. The difference between online advertising, particularly on social media sites, and advertising via television or direct mail is that the internet is not a broadcast medium. It's a communications tool, one which flows in many directions rather than from producer to recipient. As such, if you're going to engage in activity that everyone hates, and you're going to do it using the internet, you can expect the backlash to be huge. Your ads, particularly those that mistep or annoy, will not only turn off the recipient, but they will be commented upon, derided, all by the very same platform you used to send them. As TechPresident concludes:

“People like Walsh, Massicotte and Masterson, and the political operatives and politicians who hire them, may want to remember one key thing about the Internet. Unlike TV or direct mail, it's a two-way medium. The people who are being targeted can talk back. And lately, salient numbers of people have been talking back at all kinds of targets. If the political targeting industry and its clients aren't careful, they may find the bulls-eye painted on their backs.”


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Comments on “Why Targeted Online Political Ads Can Be Dangerous To A Campaign”

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A Dan (profile) says:

Direct mail

I find myself far less likely to vote for national candidates that send direct mail. More-local candidates that send direct mail make more sense, since I wouldn’t likely know their positions otherwise.

Cases in point:

I get junk mail from “Romney For President” because I’m registered Republican. I would never vote for him for president (though I voted in the primary). They’re wasting their money. They even ask you to put your own postage on donation envelopes so they don’t have to pay it. That’s led me to consider sending it back empty.

My girlfriend gets junk mail from “Obama For President” because she’s registered Democrat. All the direct mail they send her talks up his Obamacare and Immigration policies, the two things she most dislikes that he’s done. The junk mail has almost let me convince her to vote third-party in the election.

I don’t think these political groups know what they’re doing as much as they think.

Chosen Reject (profile) says:

Re: Direct mail

I think you (and I) are outliers in this exercise. I have a hard time believing this:

70% say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate they support if they found out that their campaign was using Facebook to send ads to friends of that person saying they “like” that candidate’s Facebook page.

I just don’t see that many people deciding to vote for Romney over Obama simply because Romney (hypothetically speaking) didn’t send targeted ads whereas Obama (hypothetically speaking) did, even when they are in full support of Obamacare. Perhaps I have a hard time believing it because it scares me that people would put more weight in whether a candidate targeted them in advertising than such things as the NDAA, assassinating citizens with no trial, going after whistleblowers more than every other president combined, etc, etc.

Anyone who would change their vote from Obama to Romney based on whether they were targeted in ads rather than on the real issues is not someone that deserves to be voting.

Vog (profile) says:

My eyes glaze over most forms of advertising. I don’t have a cable subscription, and I use AdBlock whenever I can. The only ads I look at give me another reason to do so than merely “the product” – the ones that are, intentionally or unintentionally, amusing/weird/horrifying/quaint. Chuck Testa. Et cetera. I’m the same way with junk mail. If I want to seriously consider purchasing something, I’ll do it based on my own research of the product, thank you very much.

Politically, the same rule applies. I tend to vote for candidates based on my own research of their concrete achievements and specific goals. Political ads and campaign promises are nothing more than smoke and mirrors. I think it’s important to vote, but I think it’s equally important to thoroughly consider your options before you cast your ballot.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Anonymous, hm?

Secondly, the researchers made little to no effort to inform the survey respondents that the technology used for targeting is, in fact anonymous.

But is it? More and more people are getting wise to the fact that what most companies promise is not anonymity but that “no personally identifiable information” is used — and that what companies consider non-PII does not always mesh with what people consider non-PII (for example, Apple doesn’t consider your physical location to be PII).

In other words, more and more people don’t believe promises of anonymity, with some justification.

drew (profile) says:

Re: Anonymous, hm?

Accepting your point Mr F about whether anonymous really is anonymous, I disagree with Tim’s paraphrasing of “people would supposedly react differently if they were told that their privacy was being invaded for a positive end result”.
I think you’re being a trifle unfair on what is – to an extent – a valid point.

The Walsh / Massicotte point shows another fundamental mis-understanding of how social media works as well. It is fundamentally a social space first; intruding into this space with marketing is very different to sticking up a billboard or broadcasting an ad on tv. It’s more like (though I hate resorting to analogue analogies) interupting a bunch of people chatting in a bar. If you’re going to do that you have to be damn sure that what you’re going to tell them is a) something they want to know and b) something they want to hear about in the bar.

DH's Love Child (profile) says:

One thing they also miss...

The actual voting demographic (people who ACTUALLY vote) are older than the demographic of most social media sites. This study respondents will almost certainly fall into the very group of people these political ads should WANT to get into the polling places.

They might think they’re being all fancy and hip by using social media to target the political ads, but in reality they’re completely disenfranchising an entire generation of voters.

Anonymous Coward says:

which makes me thankful that most people are ignorant of how much of the above is already occurring on the websites people are visiting every day, otherwise nobody would vote for anyone.

Most of them don’t vote now anyways. The elections they had this spring in the town I am currently in had like a 16% voter turn out. Even if you look at national voting, less than 40% of the people vote (generally between 36-38%) on “off years”, and slightly more than 50% (there hasn’t been over a 60% turnout since before 1970) during Presidential years.

monkyyy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

but how can a statist convince an anarchist to vote for them?
its such a large gap in views they would have to make some very very very specif promosises to get me to show my slightest support for the state

“how now on all non-violent crime will no longer having the state come kidnap u and put u in one of the most dangerous places on earth”

“now on ur taxes there will be an opt-out of supporting war”

“it will be no longer illegal to drink a large soda in newyork”

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