If you live in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, you may have seen an online video ad attacking Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud. If you live in Greater Portland, you probably didn’t.

It’s no accident.

Last week Google rolled out its latest development in online ad targeting that allows political campaigns to make Web ads appear in a specific congressional district. Essentially, if someone in the 1st District reads this story online at the exact same time as someone in the 2nd District, it’s likely only the latter would see the ad blasting Michaud.

It’s a handy tool for political campaigns, especially congressional ones, which previously could target only by ZIP code. That was a problem in some states, particularly where political parties gerrymandered congressional districts, splitting cities, towns and sometimes neighborhoods to gain an electoral advantage.

Political campaigns wasted zero time testing their new toy.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, the group that ran the ad against Michaud, spent $50,000 hitting Democrats in five states. Likewise, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched online video ads against 23 Republican incumbents.

Naturally, the NRCC and the DCCC are giddy about the new technology, which allows them to pump out low-cost video ads that cost a fraction of television spots.

Online ad targeting isn’t new, but it’s evolving, for better or worse. The evolution of the technology is a bit complicated, but basically the more precise ad targeting is the result of better identifying where people access the Internet. Previously, access points were large, central hubs, such as a large server in Portland. Now, with the proliferation of broadband technology, the access points are much more refined: a ZIP code, your computer’s IP address and, increasingly, GPS coordinates on your smartphone.

Before, campaign ads simply parroted statewide or national narratives. Now campaigns can tailor messaging to specific regions or population demographics.

Google’s new congressional district targeting is receiving a lot of press, but technology experts note that other companies long ago snagged pieces of the ad targeting market. Most notably, perhaps, is Facebook, which allows campaigns the ability to target not just location but everything from age and marital status to religious beliefs and personal interests.

“Basically anything you do when you fill out your Facebook profile can be used as a filter (for targeting),” said Lance Dutson, campaign manager for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Summers. “You can find somebody that has picked the forest products industry as their job, their age, whether they’re Catholic or something else. That’s the level of granularity you have with Facebook.”

Whether it’s a candidate for town council, a ballot initiative or congressional candidate, campaigns are already making heavy use of Facebook and Google ad targeting. Before the June primary, Republican and Democratic congressional candidates used Facebook and Google ads to elicit donations or push video ads that they couldn’t afford to put on television.

Recently, the Maine Democratic Party launched its “100 days to stop LePage” drive that highlighted the party’s efforts to take back the Legislature. Last week the party launched a television ad that targeted five potentially vulnerable Republican state senators.

The Democratic TV spots aired during off-peak hours, but the party also used Google and Facebook to broadcast the ads online in the targeted Senate districts.

Lizzy Reinholt, the communications director for the Maine Democratic Party, said the online ads are ideal for the legislative races. The ads are cheap, and refined targeting gives the party more bang for its buck by making sure voters in a specific legislative district see the ads.

The Maine Republican Party also plans to promote its candidates with what it describes as a “comprehensive Facebook campaign.”

“We’ve seen more young people like myself join the Republican Party lately because they’re concerned about jobs and the debt. Facebook is a great way to expand on that demographic,” said Maine GOP spokesman David Sorensen.

The proliferation of online political ads is undeniable. But the question remains: Do they work?

It depends on the campaign and the state.

Broadband access remains elusive in rural Maine. Additionally, ad time on television stations is cheaper here than in other states.

“There’s such a small number of voters here that it’s not as much as a waste of money to target a regional message a little outside of the region that they’re meant for,” Dutson said.

In other words, saturating the television airwaves may give campaigns a bigger bang for their buck — if they have the bucks.

Additionally, some campaigns aren’t decided by geography or demographics.

Matt McTighe, the campaign manager for the group hoping to legalize same-sex marriage, says the new targeting tools are whiz-bang cool, but they’re no substitute for voter contact.

“There’s no benefit to us targeting by district,” he said. “Our voter universe is the entire state.” He added, “For us, it’s not about geography or congressional district. It’s about where we see the highest number of people conflicted on this issue, but they’re not totally closed off to the idea of talking about it.”

Nonetheless, Mainers can expect to see more online political ads when they browse the Web from now until November. And, as the targeting technology becomes more refined, the ads will become more frequent, more personal.

“The technology has been slowly evolving, but I think it’s going to allow more regional issues to be vetted online,” Dutson said.

Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791- 6345 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @stevemistler


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.