A big change in the world of campaign advertising: over the past six months: the practice of targeting online ads directly at voters in a particular district has gone from being exotic to being a standard part of the political toolkit, with serious implications both for the political advertising environment and for the digital ad industry itself.
Here’s how it works. First, commercial advertisers put cookies on consumers’ computers to track their online habits and target ads at them appropriately. A good example of the results is “cookie-based retargeting,” the practice of hitting someone repeatedly and on many websites with ads related to a site they’ve visited recently (Zappos.com has employed cookie-based retargeting extensively).
Next, companies in the political space take all or part of a campaign’s “voter file” — the database of registered voters for their district — and match it to consumer-advertising databases linked to those cookies. Finally, the campaign and its consultants pay online advertising networks to deliver ads to the people whose identities have been matched. A campaign might target a subset of its file — only registered Democrats or Republicans who voted in the last election — or send the ad network a set of criteria it’s interested in and let the company target the ads accordingly. Women under 40? Subscribers to gun magazines? High-end car owners? All potentially fair game.