The Creepiness Factor
This could have been the election when Web-based advertising changed everything. What happened?
The backlash was furious. RapLeaf has since quit the political business to focus on consumer clients, according to competitors. (The company did not respond to a request for comment.) Firms that have emerged to fill the void—like CampaignGrid, which has worked with the Republican National Committee and at least one presidential campaign and super PAC this year*, or Democratic competitors DSPolitical and TargetSmart Communications—have moved beyond what RapLeaf was able to do. Each has access to a national voter file, which means that they have far more geographic reach, and a greater ability to synthesize the political information that campaigns collect about voters with profiles of their online behavior.
CampaignGrid last year completed assembly of a 170-million-record database, and works with an outside cookie-matching intermediary, which tracks voters across 60 Web networks that drop cookies on their sites. The accuracy of cookies tends to vary by site: Those acquired by retailers tend to be better, since a man may call himself Wayne Gretsky and use a fake age when he signs up for an ESPN.com account but at Zappos typically has his user name and address validated against credit-card information. When a campaign client pulls a list of voters it wants to reach online—say, a universe of independent men to send a persuasion message, or of reliable Republicans to send a get-out-the-vote reminder—CampaignGrid locates their records in the voter file and has the outside cookie-matching service look for them online. Voters who are located are then tagged with cookies that give them unique numerical markers and basic demographic categories but contain no personally identifiable information.
Meanwhile, at CampaignGrid’s suburban Philadelphia headquarters, buyers on a “trading desk” purchase display and video advertising inventory across nine different Web-ad exchanges that executives say give them access to 4 million sites. When a targeted voter journeys onto a Web page where CampaignGrid has purchased inventory, the cookie triggers a specific ad to appear. Advertisers can cap the number of impressions each voter sees, so a campaign that would develop a direct-mail plan with a flight of six pieces over three weeks can set the same parameters for its Web ads. Targeting through a voter-file match—as opposed to buying by site or category—can increase the price clients are willing to pay for political ads, according to CampaignGrid CEO Jeff Dittus, from as little as $1 for 1,000 impressions to as much as $15.
Not every voter can be successfully reached this way, however. CampaignGrid officials say they can find good cookies for up to 110 million of the voters in their file. (The remainder don’t use the Internet enough to have been assigned cookies, regularly clear their Web cache, or identify themselves in inconsistent ways—like a woman who goes by Marge in her Zappos profile but Margery on her voter-registration form.) Of that 110 million, one-half do not regularly visit the sites on networks where CampaignGrid has purchased inventory. As a result, only about one-third of a universe of targeted voters can typically be served ads during a conventional multiweek campaign.
But the campaign that buys the ad never finds out who saw the ads and who didn’t. When reports on their advertising campaigns come back to political campaigns, they see only aggregated numbers: a total number of ads served, a number of unique voters who saw them, and an analysis of the broad demographic categories carried on cookies. To compensate for those who went unreached, a campaign needs to then use less precise, more intuitive tactics: If the reports show younger men didn’t see the cookie-targeted ads, buy display ads on NASCAR sites. Most of the executives and buyers at CampaignGrid are new to political targeting—Dittus was a pioneer in the development of televised infomercials—so not knowing the names of specific people who see your ads is no significant loss. “It’s an exact match of what’s done in the commercial world applied to politics,” says Richard Masterson, an early digital-marketing entrepreneur who co-founded CampaignGrid.
Yet campaign work is about collecting, analyzing, and using personally identifiable information. PII doesn’t exist in politics: Courts have exempted electoral communication from restrictions on telemarketing like do-not-call lists, and unlike in many European countries, American regulators place few restrictions on data collection or marketing intended to profile voters. The Federal Election Commission has even taken steps to explicitly encourage campaigns to distribute personal data they’ve collected on voters and donors, by creating exemptions to campaign-finance rules to allow swapping of mailing lists.
The different standard that has developed online is not a principle agreed upon and adopted by political operatives, but a default acceptance of the practices of cookie-matching developed for corporate marketers. "People who are collecting, using, and sometimes distributing data are acutely aware of this issue of ‘the creepiness factor,’ ” says Daniel McInnis, a attorney specializing in consumer-protection law at Akin, Gump. “The data brokers and online advertisers are just trying to push for industry-driven voluntary rules that will address whatever these concerns are."
But modern political campaigns are based on the tactic of reminding voters how much personally identifiable information they have about you, with a blithe disregard for concerns about creepiness. That ring interrupting your family dinner is, after all, just one link in a chain of relatively transparent data collection and monitoring. A stranger knocked on your door and asked you questions about your views on sensitive moral questions and what you plan to do on a secret ballot. If you gave the right answers, one of the stranger’s colleagues now calls you days later to let you know that, because of the answers you gave, they’re happy to send a van to your house the following Tuesday to drive you to the polls.
By holding themselves to the corporate world’s standard, politicians are not only crippling their ability to make the Web an equal player in campaign voter contact but accepting the premise that you deserve more privacy online than you do off.
Update, April 27, 2012: Since the firm's executives were interviewed by Slate, CampaignGrid has reorganized itself under the holding company Audience Partners. The Pennsylvania office from which employees purchase web inventory is today Audience Partners' headquarters, and Jeff Dittus is the CEO. In addition, the company now claims it can locate cookies for 130 million US voters. (Return)
Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.