FALL 2008 VOL. 9 NO. 2

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Can We Still Call It Political Advertising? 

Few people are fooled by the goal of political advertisements. Like any ad, that of a political candidate aims to convince you that he or she is the best “product,” possessing everything you need while disassociating him or herself from the undesirables associated with the competitor. Twentieth-century political candidates could predict and control voter impressions through targeted information output. Airing on the heels of a laundry detergent commercial or sitcom spot, political promotions depended on the attention, if not interest, of a captive audience.

Enter new media, the wave of the twenty-first century. Gaining more momentum than predicted five years or even one year ago, recent advances in Internet and communication technologies have enabled the emergence of a diverse ecosystem of interactive, participatory and personalizable online media, such as search engines, online communities, recommender systems, consumer review forums, social networks, blogs, wikis, and other instances of what is sometimes collectively referred to as “Web X.0” or “social media.” New media has revolutionized the candidate/voter relationship. Candidates are now able to reach previously unattainable populations, and on the flip side, constituents – whose only prior resonant contribution was a vote – are now able to play an active role in the campaign process.

According to Chris Dellarocas, associate professor of information systems at the Smith School, much of this can be explained by what author Chris Anderson coined the “long tail” theory, the idea that through the Internet a larger variety of products are visible to us, thus shifting demand to a broader subset of once obscure products.

“It used to be that political contributions were confined to individuals and groups prepared to make considerable donations,” says Dellarocas. “Thanks to the Internet, constituents can now show their support with small contributions. Supporters across age ranges, demographics and financial levels can influence candidate selection. As a result, a larger segment of the voter population is contributing to election outcomes.”

Candidates’ images are being affected as well. “Unpredictable, user-centered advertising is likely keeping political candidates on their toes,” says Hank Boyd, Tyser Teaching Fellow at the Smith School. “Messages can be easily absorbed and quickly contested, removing the element of control present when dealing with prior political advertising campaigns.”

Is traditional advertising a thing of the past? Not likely. But now there is more to see. New media has enabled voters to take control of candidate selection and agenda-setting. Today’s candidates need to stay alert because intended messaging is likely to go off course. Taking constituent feedback into account has become a necessity for those bent on political success.

It is a voter’s election. Candidates: prepare and beware.

  SMITH BUSINESS Magazine

Copyright 2008 Robert H. Smith School of Business