The 2012 online and TV ad barrage may feel like it came to a screeching halt Wednesday — but don’t get too comfortable with that.
Before long, outside mega-dollar groups are expected to start a new political advertising blitz, this time aimed at the fiscal cliff or possible sequester.
“It’s still too early to get into details on this but we'll be engaged,” said Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the GOP-allied super PAC American Crossroads. “The specs are still unclear.”
Outside groups such as Crossroads — which spent tens of millions on the Web in this year’s elections — also engage in issue-oriented ad campaigns. During the debt ceiling debacle last year, for instance, they aired TV ads and blanketed the Internet with messages pressuring Republicans not to cave.
Social platforms expect that conversation to bleed online.
"The political chatter on Facebook may subside momentarily, but it won't stop," said Katie Harbath, of the social network's government and politics team. "It'll just move to the lame-duck Congress."
One key reason the Internet likely will remain in a state of constant campaigning: It’s inexpensive. Small groups with limited budgets who can’t afford expensive TV time or direct mail can instead organize groups for free on Facebook or Google+ and try to make video clips go viral to get broadcast-like exposure for nearly nothing.
“The Internet has made the ability to communicate to large groups of people very quickly and cheaply,” said Scott Goodstein, owner of Revolution Messaging and external online director for Obama’s 2008 campaign. “Add YouTube and Flickr to social media, text messages, email and Twitter, and you’re now moving mass amounts of messages.
This is all Organizing 101, but now it’s a lot, lot cheaper than having to wait for a national organization or a party structure or a union to spend the money.”
Still, at least for this brief post-Election Day moment, the Internet has quieted down and reverted to commercial advertising that typically carries far less vitriol.
“I think everyone’s heard so much about the election and the candidates that it’s going to be exciting to be able to do a Google search and actually find the things you’re looking for,” said Irfan Kamal, senior vice president and global head for social media at the powerhouse ad agency Ogilvy & Mather. “It’s going to be good to wake up and not have all the social media and search dominated by these political messages.”
The most obvious indicator of the abrupt sea change: When the clock struck midnight on the West Coast, the promoted hashtag #VoteObama on Twitter vanished. It was replaced by #LincolnUnites, a promotion for the forthcoming Steven Spielberg biopic on the 16th president.
Also, moments after former Gov. Mitt Romney’s concession speech, several Twitter search terms that had yielded promoted tweets with political messages stopped doing so.
The words “jobs” yielded a message from the University of Phoenix, “health care” was bought by an exercise machine maker and “Ohio” was taken by FedEx.
In other words, normal, commercial advertising — not cutthroat attacks suggesting a candidate wanted to starve seniors or adopt Marxism.
“There’ll actually be commercials for tennis shoes and soda pop now,” Goodstein said. “You can’t keep this type of saturation up forever.”
Evidence of fatigue abounded even as the race climaxed. A persistently top-ranked Twitter hashtag throughout Election Day was #ImSickOf.
Countless responses echoed that of Chloe Habitz of Mattawan, Mich., who completed the phrase with “the election. Just announce the winner already.” @JordanKendalll tweeted another take Tuesday: “#ImSickOf seeing Obama and Romney all over my timeline.”
It’s no surprise that many people — particularly those less politically engaged — would want their Internet back. The 2012 race was the first presidential election in which so many online levers could be pulled to speak to potential voters, and the gigantic infusion of money made it easy to overwhelm the system. In all, the Obama campaign alone spent $52 million on online advertising, FEC filings showed. That was double the $26 million spent by Romney, and neither figure includes the money burned through by sympathetic super PACs.
As a result, candidate commercials unspooled prior to online videos to the point that YouTube had no time left to sell by November. Web display ads followed voters in battleground regions as they bought books, checked email or looked up recipes. Search terms on Google and Twitter were dominated by political messages, Facebook pages were crammed with pressure to “like” someone running for office and email boxes were so stuffed with campaign fundraising requests that more than 80 percent went unread directly to the virtual trash.
What’s more, it remains arguable whether it made a difference.
“There are some important questions as to whether there’s any substantial role in online advertising” for messages intended to persuade voters, said Nicco Mele, a Harvard University lecturer and the webmaster of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. “I don’t know that we know enough to say that definitively.”
Goodstein warned that Web users ought not get too comfortable with the absence of political messages online because the siesta won’t last long.
“There’s going to be sequestration and what the lame-duck legislative session means,” Goodstein said. “You’re going to be annoyed or be educated or have to tolerate political discourse about those things and others. It is now a part of being an engaged citizen. I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”
Mele, for one, admitted a sense of electoral withdrawal coming on.
“I live for this,” he said. “It’s really fun and awesome and I’m going to miss it. Already today I was reading about the fiscal cliff and how different sides will position themselves on it. I was like ‘Ooh, another fight, this is fun.’”