Online Ads: Spreading Your Message, On A Budget

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The Internet has become the medium of choice for presidential contenders this year.

True, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is buying TV time in Iowa and elsewhere, pitching his status as a Washington outsider. And just Tuesday, Mitt Romney put up his first TV ad in New Hampshire, asking voters to "Believe in America."

But most of the videos in the campaign so far have been seen, and distributed, online.

At Romney's website, you'll find 13 pages' worth of videos. Some are simply clips of Romney's appearances on TV, but many others are slick productions. In one titled "Stop the Spending," people identified as "private sector job creators" criticize the 2009 stimulus bill and raise fears of another one.

Ken Goldstein, who tracks campaign ads for Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, or CMAG, says videos like Romney's have become increasingly popular with candidates for a couple of reasons.

"They're a very cheap thing for the campaign to do — sometimes it doesn't really even cost that much money to produce the ad," he says. "And then what they're hoping to do is get a bunch of earned media or free media coverage to amplify that message."

Perhaps the most talked-about video in the campaign so far was a pretty simple production, starring Herman Cain's campaign manager and his cigarette.

Videos like those are like catnip to TV producers. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School, says campaigns are using Web videos because they work.

"Because of 24-hour-a-day news cycles now," she says, there is "all but an open channel for anything that's clever or extremely controversial, anything that's visual, and anything that's political. And as a result there is now a dissemination channel wide open, waiting to accept these ads."

Some video ads are simple clip jobs: Take a couple of bites of your candidate, mix in appropriate background music, add a few graphic titles, and voila, you've got a Web-ready video. Newt Gingrich's campaign posted one Monday, featuring some clips from a GOP debate last August in which Gingrich blasted the deficit-cutting supercommittee and which now makes the former House speaker look prescient:

But with greater distribution comes greater scrutiny. For instance, a new ad for Cain in Iowa shows a farmer disparaging the EPA.

"The EPA wants to regulate dust on farmers," the ad says. "You can't plow a field without dust. You can't drive down a gravel road without dust. My dog makes dust."

The Annenberg Public Policy Center has a new website called FlackCheck.org, which promises to take down misleading claims like Cain's attack against a nonexistent regulation. This one stars a talking cow named Emilky:

If nothing else, FlackCheck shows that almost anyone with a computer and editing software can produce an Internet video.

It may or may not win awards, but it gets your message across — and that's why campaigns churn them out.

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