McCain campaign is into ambush ads. His campaign buys rights to top search results on key election terms.
So-called ambush ads are typically reserved for Web-savvy marketers such as General Motors and AT&T. The newest believer: a 71-year-old presidential candidate.
Sen. Barack Obama appears to many people to be running a far more tech-wise campaign than his opponent, with his use of text messages to announce his vice-presidential candidate and the creation of his own vibrant social network, My.BarackObama.com.
But Sen. John McCain is in some ways outsmarting Sen. Obama when it comes to Internet marketing. One example: As of Wednesday, a Google search for "Joe Biden" or even just "Biden" resulted in a prominently displayed ad labeled "Joe Biden on Obama" that links to Sen. McCain's site. There, a video begins playing that shows Sen. Biden criticizing Sen. Obama during the Democratic primaries. The move mimics the "ambush" strategy that advertisers often employ: buying a competitor's term so that an ad for the buyer's own product appears when a consumer searches for the other brand.
Sen. McCain was able to pull off that sleight of hand because he outbid his opponent for the search term "Joe Biden." As a result, Sen. McCain's ad takes the top spot alongside search results, while Mr. Obama's ad appears lower in the results.
Sen. McCain's team has been the aggressor in other ways, too. In recent days, it has bought search ads tied to key terms such as "U.S. economy" and "housing crisis," which take visitors to Web sites outlining Sen. McCain's plan on those issues.
Meanwhile, the Obama camp largely has yet to advertise around these terms, missing a key opportunity, according to experts, to communicate his message to undecided voters.
"The big downfall is that Obama's not reaching the undecided voters," says Janel Landis, senior director of search development and strategy at SendTec, a search-marketing firm that has been tracking the candidates' techniques since June. "He's not bidding on issues or his competitor's name."
The Obama campaign says it continually works to optimize its search marketing to maximize effectiveness. "Thanks to our millions of online supporters who frequently visit our Web site and other social-networking sites, unlike other campaigns, BarackObama.com already has extremely high organic search engine rankings, which helps us limit the number of terms where we need to use paid advertising to have a presence," Nick Shapiro, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said in an email.
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is, in many ways, using the Web to powerful effect. He has raised much more money through the Internet than Sen. McCain and has recruited many more volunteers via that medium. Marketing executives say Sen. Obama has been successful at building his name and campaign through social media like Facebook, YouTube and his own social-networking site.
But Sen. McCain gets bragging rights for his push to try to reach voters on specific issues, particularly through search advertising, says Joshua Stylman, managing partner at Reprise Media, a search marketing firm owned by Interpublic Group. The McCain campaign's search-advertising campaign is vastly bigger than its opponent's. In July, the McCain campaign had 15.1 million sponsored link impressions -- the number of times that an ad is downloaded onto a computer screen -- compared with the 1.2 million for the Obama campaign, according to Nielsen Online.
Sen. Obama, meanwhile, has chosen to focus online ad spending around display ads. The Obama campaign had 416.7 million image-based ad impressions, compared with Sen. McCain's 16.5 million.
Sen. Obama can also claim a huge lead in nonpaid search traffic, which suggests that he has done a good job optimizing its Web pages for search engines. Links to his Web sites often appear higher in the non-paid area of the search results, and he is driving more traffic to his site, Mr. Stylman says. The 3.3 million unique visitors to Sen. Obama's Web site in July was more than double the 1.6 million visitors to Sen. McCain's site, according to Nielsen Online.
Both campaigns have made quantum leaps in using the Web for marketing compared with where the two parties were in 2004. For example, one of the big missed opportunities during the last presidential campaign came when John Kerry didn't buy ads next to blogs criticizing him, Mr. Stylman says. "He missed a wonderful opportunity to say, 'Here is what the other guys are saying about me, and here is my point of view.' "
Even with the battle online, the vast majority of ad spending in the presidential election continues to be in traditional media. Since February 2007, the candidates have spent more than $300 million on TV ads and roughly $7 million on online ads, according to TNS Media Intelligence, which only tracks display ad spending.
Here, too, Sen. McCain's camp has something to crow about this week. New data shows that Sen. McCain's ads that ran during the Olympic broadcast on NBC Universal were more memorable than Mr. Obama's commercials, according to IAG, a Nielsen firm that uses an online panel to track the performance of advertising.
The political ad that Olympic TV watchers were best able to recall included Sen. McCain's attack ad that said Sen. Obama is the "biggest celebrity in the world" but questions if he is ready to "help your family?" The spot went on to promote Sen. McCain's renewable-energy plan.
To come up with its data, IAG looked at about 1,600 surveys of likely voters who watched NBC Olympic broadcast where the political ads aired. IAG uses an online panel of consumers who regularly log into an IAG Web site and answer questions about TV shows and ads they saw in the past 24 hours.
Higher recall of ads is "typically the result of better creative and that is the story here as well," says Alan Gould, IAG's co-chief executive officer.
The attack ad didn't sit well with everyone. About 27% of the people who remembered the celebrity ad said they were less likely to vote for Sen. McCain after seeing it.