Election 2016: Campaigns Finally Recognize That the Internet Isn't Just an ATM

Interpreting the 2016 Presidential Ads Online

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A banner ad for Ted Cruz.
A banner ad for Ted Cruz. Credit: Cruz for President

The ad buys are even more targeted and data-driven this time around, but online advertising in 2016 doesn't look all that different from in 2008, the year political digital broke out into the mainstream. In the most direct reflection of those earlier ads, Hillary Clinton's smiling profile still peers ahead to the future in many of her online display ads. The images look a lot like the ones the then-Senator from New York ran during her failed '08 primary bid.

Credit: Hillary for America

Online display ads have become an important element in presidential campaigns, complementing broader paid media strategies including TV, direct mail, video, social media, search, email and more. As in the last two presidential election cycles, the ads often serve multiple purposes, intending to persuade or encourage people to vote, and take an action such as providing an email address, watching a video or finding a polling place.

With the help of digital ad monitor Moat Pro, Ad Age looked at display ads placed since January by the remaining presidential candidates.

"Confirm where to vote for Hillary on March 15": This and similar, simple directives have been common in ads from Ms. Clinton since the primaries started. Unlike her ubiquitous "Help Make History … Contribute $50 Now" fundraising ads in the 2008 primaries, she is asking voters to "Commit to Vote" and "Add Your Name," both ways to capture email addresses that can be used for more targeted fundraising requests.

Credit: Bernie 2016

A relative lack of "Donate Now" ads among the remaining candidates is a subtle but telling distinction compared to previous elections. There's a sense that political campaigns finally recognize that the internet is not just an ATM.

The Clinton camp has also aimed to persuade. "I've spent my life fighting for children and families -- I'm not stopping now," reads one ad seen regularly since January.

Persuasion has been key for Mr. Sanders, too, as his campaign became a threat to Ms. Clinton by convincing voters that he is "Not beholden to Wall Street" -- a message repeated in his display ads. Another oft-spotted ad declares, "Bernie is challenging the power of big money and fighting to make America work for the rest of us."

Credit: Cruz for President

"Bernie's very much trying to run on issues," said Lee Carter, a partner at language strategy firm Maslansky & Partners who is not affiliated with any of the campaigns.

The majority of Republican Ted Cruz's ads call him "a true constitutional conservative," but say little on the issues. "That's not a story to get excited about," said Ms. Carter. "It's about him; it's not about us."

With statements like "John Kasich never gives up," the Ohio Governor's display ads similarly play up character but don't offer a clear reason for people to click to watch a video, or ultimately vote for him.

The Cruz camp has also run the sort of negative messaging usually reserved for super PACs. One Cruz ad likely shown primarily to gun owners shows President Obama in a military helmet and threatens that "Obama wants your guns." It's the only one not featuring the candidate himself, noted Shelley Stevens, a group account director from branding agency Sockeye who is not affiliated with any of the campaigns. "It's manipulative and fear-mongering," she said.

As for Mr. Trump, the singular message in his sparsely-run banner ads is the same he's hammered away at all along: "Make America Great Again." Ms. Carter suggested that Mr. Sanders has something in common with Mr. Trump. "They have a very clear master story to me," she said.

Ms. Stevens put it in a way that would speak to the real estate mogul. "It's like a sign on a highrise building."

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