Yes, Political Campaigns Follow Your Browser History

For political races in 2013, it's common for campaigns to microtarget ads to your web history, consumer purchasing habits, age, ethnicity, and more. Here's how it works.

This week, America's busy election season draws to a close. In certain geographic regions with tight political races, this means computer screens—and especially those associated with IP addresses that have users in certain demographics—are crowded with advertisements for candidates. What many people don't realize is that political advertisements on the Internet are highly targeted, and are the result of marrying Internet browser histories to census records and aggregate marketing data purchased from voters. By triangulating all three sources, political campaigns can microtarget the individual voter. Fast Company spoke with one advertising company to find out how they do it for politics.

Engage:BDR is a Los Angeles-based digital advertising house that also works on political campaigns. The firm were hired as consultants for a political action committee (PAC) supporting first-time mayor Eric Garcetti's successful campaign, Lots of People Who Support Eric Garcetti. Engage:BDR suggested that the PAC, which funnels donor contributions into campaign funds, do something commonplace in 2013's political climate: Microtarget their advertising.

In order to target approximately 500,000 members of two specific demographics, English-speaking Latinos ages 18-46 and Spanish speaking Latinos, Engage:BDR used a combination of 120 offline household consumer statistics, “hyper-local IP data sets,” census data, and voter records to set up online advertising. With their voter base targeted, they had advertising run at times of day that found to be most fruitful according to behavior analytics. Targeted voters saw display and video ads for Garcetti by artist Derek Gores.

What many voters (and non-voters) might not realize is that it's standard procedure for electoral campaigns these days to use all sorts of data sets when determining who to market to. Engage:BDR CEO Ted Dhanik told Fast Company that the Garcetti project leveraged "online transactional data (credit card processors for online-only transactions), offline voter file data, offline behavioral data, online behavioral data and overlaying census information."

Dhanik noted in a telephone conversation that the Garcetti PAC project combined both desktop web and mobile advertising intended to reach voters. The mobile component of this and similar political projects also included geospecific advertisements: By drilling down on the GPS coordinates of a given block, mobile advertising targeted at people on that block could direct them to the exact address of their local polling place.

The microtargeting campaign was successful for the Garcetti campaign and Engage:BDR. According to a report published by the agency, they delivered over 7 million impressions for the Garcetti campaign in just over two weeks. Engage:BDR claims that the microtargeting campaign bought between 10% to 17% better click-through rates for Spanish-speaking Latinos and English-speaking Latinos ages 18-46. While those returns might sound like another dry marketing statistic, they're—again—the reason why election campaigns want to know you better than you know yourself.

Media coverage of the 2012 Presidential campaign was full of discussion of these same election targeting and microsegmenting projects. There are few laws preventing marketing firms working on election campaigns (or, for that matter, selling laundry) from leveraging publicly available census and voter registration data and correlating it with things like, say, purchased supermarket loyalty card analytics. The rise of the Internet, cloud computing, and omnipresent data means that, yes, political campaigns care very much whether you watch ESPN or Animal Planet. It's a strange future—but one that we're already living in.

[Photo: Flickr user Michael Cote]

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