How Citizens United’s Anti-McAuliffe Online Ads Shoot Themselves in the Foot

Citzens United Fast Terry ad

A fascinating online ad popped up for me* for the first time this weekend: the “Fast Terry” piece to the right. At first I thought it was produced by Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign, since it takes on Democrat Terry McAuliffe, but the “Fast Terry” landing page is actually on a site run by Citizens United. You’ll remember them as the political group whose desire to run an anti-Hillary Clinton film gave the Roberts Supreme Court an opportunity to remove most practical limits on non-campaign political spending in the United States.

This time CU’s back with a half-hour, not-so-flattering documentary about Terry McAulifee,** the former Democratic National Committee chair (and Clinton-confidant) who’s now running for Virginia governor. I don’t know a whole lot of Democrats who are excited about McAuliffe, despite his current lead in the polls — for most, a vote for Terry is a vote AGAINST Republican Ken Cuccinelli, and the film’s not going to make them feel any better, even if they might question the source, the editing and the scare-music score.***

Overall, it stands on its own…which is good, because it has to. Here’s the problem: Citizens United is spending $350k to promote this film, and while the online (Google) ads are dramatic and the movie itself well-produced, the landing page that connects the two is a failure.

Here’s the page you go to when you click the ad: (opens in new window). Let’s ignore the non-SEO-friendly HTML page title and URL (the former a matter of wording, the latter an easy feature to set up on a WordPress site like this). Instead, let’s focus on how well the page works to get across the message Citizens United started to deliver via the online ad we clicked on.

Short answer? Not so hot — though the video’s embedded on the page (good), you have to watch the first couple of minutes to start to get the message unless you happen to scroll to some (small-font) text below. That’s a problem, considering that most of us who click on an ad only stay the landing page for a few seconds unless it really grabs us (on that note, I’d be very interested to see the analytics on how many people hit the page, how many start the video, and how long the average “view” is). A better practice usually is to include a prominent heading and message bullets, often alongside a smaller frame containing the video, so that people can walk away with SOME part of your message even if they don’t stick around.

The page does seem to be optimized to show a high-quality version of the film, which looked sharp on my iPad. If that’s a priority for the “Full Movie” page, then the ads should point to a separate landing page that does a better job of putting across CU’s messaging in the brief time a viewer is likely to be there. After all, people who WANT to watch the video can always expand it to full-screen, and the landing page could link to the main “Full Movie” page if need be.

Other options: why not run ads with the video embedded in them, perhaps with the YouTube trailer or a highlight reel (if they’re running anything other than the variant above and a text version, I haven’t seen it). Those may be too expensive to buy in much volume, but how about A/B testing different page headings? That would cost essentially nothing but some staff time.**** Plus, it might suggest some alternate messaging that could be effective in other media as well. In any case, while this film’s not going to put Ken Cuccinelli in the governor’s mansion on its own, $350,000 is a fair amount of money to spend to influence a governor’s race. Shouldn’t you try to get the most bang for your buck, even if online ads are only one component of a larger outreach campaign?

This ad campaign is a perfect example of how the little things truly matter in digital politics. Optimizing your landing pages and testing your page headings isn’t sexy, but it’s the kind of practical, day-to-day application of testing and data analysis at which Democrats have begun to excel. It’s also the kind of excellence that can win elections.


Previous coverage of the McAuliffe/Cuccinelli race: Data-Driven Voter Targeting in Virginia’s Race for Governor.

*Yes, “I saw an online ad” is becoming my version of Tom Friedman’s “so I was talking to a cab driver in Cairo.”

**Disclosure: Terry McAuliffe’s digital director, Alex Kellner, is a friend, but we don’t speak about campaigns he works on and haven’t seen each other in months.

***Also the constant repetition of a handful of clips and the fact that of the 14 “participants” (interviewees) in the credits, only six have their full names listed.

****Hint: “Fast Terry — Full Movie” likely fails on both human-persuasion and SEO terms, and if they didn’t get THAT right, you can bet they didn’t A/B test ad variants either.

Written by
Colin Delany
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1 comment
  • Great write up as always. Here’s the worst part, no one is going to be moved from the Terry column to the Ken column with something like this. Ds will see the ad and think “Ken’s a dick”, Rs will see the ad and think “Terry’s a dick”. Only Rs will watch the movie, and only retired or unemployed Rs at that. Minds made up. That is all.