Internet Becoming Campaign Mainstay
By Joseph Popiolkowski , Staff Writer
Although Kinky Friedman, an independent candidate for Texas governor, would tell you he's no puppet, he appears in three brief Web-only commercials as a talking action figure trading barbs and quips with reporters. And the ads double as plugs for the campaign store where you can buy your very own Kinky doll.
Friedman and other political candidates increasingly areturning to Internet political ads to help them stand out from the crowd, personalize their message and boost their fund raising -at a fraction of the cost of traditional radio and television ads.
Pioneered during Jesse Ventura's successful gubernatorial bid in Minnesota and Howard Dean's unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination two years ago, campaign Web sites have evolved into a means of raising money, communicating with supporters and organizing activities cheaply and quickly. Now, they're quickly becoming tangible expressions of the candidate's personality and an avenue for visual media.
Video is a relatively new feature on campaign Web sites because viewers typically lacked the extra bandwidth and media player needed to stream the clips, said Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University, which, like Stateline.org , is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Previously, candidates had to be satisfied with making TV and radio spots accessible on the Web. But as public access to high-speed bandwidth expands and candidates devote more money to Web sites, viewers can expect innovation and creativity, Darr said.
Besides his "Talking Action Figure Commercials," Friedman's Web site features clips from political talk shows and two fully animated satirical "Kinkytoons."
"You have to do those types of things when you're an independent candidate or a third-party candidate because you don't have the largess that's available to other candidates," said Bill Hillsman, president and chief creative officer of North Woods Advertising, the agency behind the campaign of Friedman, a musician/comedian/author-turned politician.
North Woods, which previously worked on Ventura's campaign and Ariana Huffington's failed bid in the California gubernatorial recall election, partnered with a Texas-based animation studio - The Collection Agency - for the 'toons. The first has garnered over 100,000 hits, according to Hillsman.
"We'll do them as long as they're effective, and so far they've been effective," he said.
Studies show personal messages from the candidate on a donation page increases the contribution. And funny " Jib-Jab "-type videos making the rounds on the Internet generate interest in the candidate and eyeballs on the Web site, Darr said.
"With humor, you can be a lot more biting - and in a socially acceptable way - than you can with straight commentary," said Darr.
Ron Saxton, a Republican candidate for Oregon governor, posted a series of nine low-cost Web commentaries all taped in one day at his home. Originally, the issue-specific videos were embedded in emails to supporters and accompanied by written policy briefs.
Now, the videos help establish a personal relationship between Saxton and Web site visitors in the weeks leading up to the May 16 primary, said Felix Schein, Saxton's campaign manager.
However, while the Web is a useful way of rallying supporters and soliciting donations, its penetration and scope are still no match for traditional TV and radio spots.
"While it's a vital component, we're not going to win the election on this alone," Schein said.
Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner digitally welcomes visitors to " Forward Together " - the Political Action Committee he chairs - by popping up at the bottom of the page.
The PAC used patented technology by digital media solutions company Rovion for the effect. Warner, a potential Democratic president hopeful, filmed seven different messages in two hours in front a green screen. First-time visitors are prompted to sign up for updates and create an account.
Since early March sign-ups have increased 400 percent, said Jerome Armstrong, head of Internet strategy for Forward Together.
The campaign Web site for Texas GOP Gov. Rick Perry also features his video welcome, and Tom Suozzi , a Democratic candidate for governor of New York, has a message for supporters viewable on every page.
But some candidates still are satisfied with merely transferring TV and radio campaign ads to the Web, which experts say shows a lack of imagination, energy, money and knowledge of the Internet's potential.
Suozzi in mid-March issued the first TV ad of any candidate for statewide office. To combat low name recognition, Suozzi's ad - one mouse click from his homepage - is touted as an introduction to voters and highlights his fiscal record as Nassau County executive.
Martin O'Malley , a Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland, has six 30-second television spots on his Web site to draw attention to his record as mayor of Baltimore and to highlight recent public appearances. Voters also can download an "O'Podcast" via iTunes for automatic audio campaign updates.