The ACT effort marks one of the most innovative pushes to date in an election remarkable for adapting viral and nontraditional tricks borrowed from mainstream marketers. The group has been out since March in 15 states, using paid workers-some loaned by union groups and others volunteered from Democratic groups-with the ultimate goal of knocking on 21 million doors to ensure enough Democrats vote this fall.
Former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal, the group's CEO, said the ads are a logical addition to the group's existing $125 million door-to-door effort to identify likely Democratic voters and turn them out.
Support for the program was further bolstered last week when MoveOn.org announced a "Vote for Change" tour of musical artists including Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp and the Dixie Chicks to raise money for ACT's efforts. "Lots of people feel Dave Matthews and Bruce Springsteen are more important in their lives [than politicians]," said Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn's political action committee. "They speak to a whole group of people who wouldn't pay attention to the election."
ACT's canvassers were already using 2,000 Palms to track voters early this year. So it wasn't much of a leap when advertising consultant Will Robinson of MacWilliams & Robinson, Washington, suggested that instead of just using the Palms to record information, the workers could also show voters state-specific political ads focused on an issue they care about.
In Ohio, six different ads are being shown on the hand-helds, ranging from job-loss and health-care issues to more general messages about volunteerism. The custom-made spots, crafted by a number of agencies, are 40 to 50 seconds long and often are shown in shortened form.
"In our part of Ohio, we've lost one out four steel jobs since George Bush became president," starts one. "It's been four years and 270,000 children in Ohio have no health insurance," starts another.
JoDee Winterhof, the group's political director, said the ads shown in an individual home are selected before the canvasser approaches, based on information learned from earlier home visits or other means. "The response has been tremendous," she said. "Who has ever been to someone's door carrying a PalmPilot and showing an ad? Nobody! In some cases people have never seen a PalmPilot up close before."
For America Coming Together, the Palms are just part of an extensive effort to get Democrats to the polls, a job its officials and some Democrats feel the party hasn't done very well.
ACT's chief of staff is Harold Ickes, an adviser to President Clinton. Mr. Ickes also created the Media Fund, which has been spending heavily this year in battleground states, including $2.5 million in anti-Bush ads begun last week.
At a Democratic National Convention rally in Boston, Democratic groups targeting women, African-Americans and Hispanics said they were working with ACT and labor groups to better coordinate and avoid information overload among voters. Likely voters are identified and targeting is split up among various groups.
It's unlikely, however, that the one-to-one approach will catch on with mainstream advertisers. Erwin Ephron, principal at Ephron, Papazian & Ephron, New York, said there are local laws on canvassing that don't apply to political activities. And, it's too expensive. "One of the things about political canvassing is: It doesn't cost anything," he said. "It's volunteers."