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Your ad here: Web surprise hits ’08 race

Trawl the Internet and you'll often find a  jarring juxtaposition of candidate, message and audience, highlighting how political campaigns are still trying to get a handle on the power of the Internet to communicate with and motivate voters.
/ Source: The New York Times

Visitors to can sign up to find the perfect dating partner, advice on sex and how-to articles on same-sex marriage and parenting.

Over the course of at least two days in August, they may well also have seen banner advertisements about the Republican presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, according to an analysis of campaign Web advertising provided by the Nielsen Online, AdRelevance, monitoring service.

At least 32,000 times over those two days, users clicking on the site got a Romney ad like one saying “Mitt Romney for President — Join Team Mitt!” and a link to the candidate’s Web site.

A regular site for advertisers like Jeep and Toyota, was not exactly what Mr. Romney’s campaign had in mind when it set out this summer to blanket the Web with messages about the candidate.

Mr. Romney has courted religious conservatives by highlighting his opposition to same-sex marriage, and he has come under attack from gay activists for reversing his previous support of a major gay rights bill and open service by homosexuals in the military. He advertised on unintentionally through a commonly used system that randomly places ads on a vast network of sites.

That jarring juxtaposition of candidate, message and audience highlights how political campaigns are still trying to get a handle on the power of the Internet to communicate with and motivate voters.

Candidates and their supporters are using the Web more than ever to reach out frequently to visitors of sites who they believe will probably be interested in their promises and positions. On Monday, backers of Representative Ron Paul, Republican of Texas, raised more than $4 million on behalf of his presidential campaign through an appeal on a site created to appeal to libertarians.

But on the Web, campaigns are also venturing into unruly territory where they risk losing the thing they crave most: control.

When it comes to television, politicians, like all marketers, have decades of experience and reams of research to help guide them toward the audience they are seeking and to shape messages that will push the proper buttons. But for all the promise of the Web to allow sophisticated microtargeting of messages, it remains to many campaigns a bit of a Wild West where the rules are still being written and politicians by and large are newly arrived settlers.

“Campaigns have been buying advertising on television for 40-plus years now; they’ve only been buying ads on the Internet for three or four years,” said Mindy Finn, director of Mr. Romney’s online strategy. “It’s more uncharted territory, and everyone’s trying to figure it out.”

Television is still the primary means by which the campaigns reach voters by the millions, and even now, Internet advertising makes up a small fraction of the candidates’ advertising budgets.

But campaign strategists say the Internet provides unrivaled opportunity to draw volunteers and donations for mere pennies, through Web sites that often make their interests and affiliations clear. (The campaign of Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, knows, for example, it is talking to veterans when advertising on

Still, the Romney campaign had not expected its banners to appear on, whose users have seen thousands of “Romney for President” ads while using the site to write their own plots about their favorite fictional characters — or read the work of others, including pornographic scenes between Harry Potter and Hermione Granger.

And Mr. Romney’s aides said they did not know their ads had run on or

Mr. Romney is not the only presidential candidate still finding his way online.

Earlier this year, Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, removed an advertisement from an screen dedicated to the book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” which has upset Jewish groups who view it as anti-Semitic — learning it was there only when contacted by The New York Sun. A former aide to Mr. McCain said he was surprised to see his candidate’s ads appear on the liberal Huffington Post Web site.

Last week an ad for Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor who is trying to overcome conservative suspicion in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, showed up on a liberal blog, DailyKos.

Aides at several campaigns say they are navigating as they go, learning the hard way, for instance, about the pitfalls of the “ad networks” like the one Mr. Romney used. It randomly bombards thousands of sites with its clients’ ads, and then increases the frequency on those that seem to draw the most responses.

Part of the issue seems to be that political strategists came into the campaign season unschooled in the challenges of Internet advertising, and Web advertising sales outlets are not necessarily aware of the unique sensitivities of each presidential campaign.

“The average Internet buyer is not typically paying attention to politics the way the average consultant is,” said Sara Taylor, a former political strategist for President Bush.

The political strategists are behind on a learning curve that their corporate counterparts have already ascended, said Jon Gibs, a vice president at Nielsen Online. “Corporate media consultants don’t make mistakes like this,” Mr. Gibs said.

According to the Nielsen study, Mr. Romney has the heaviest Web advertising presence, leaving him initially more exposed to the possibility of his message ending up in an uncomfortable place.

The Nielsen analysis shows Mr. Romney has most frequently advertised on the Microsoft Network and Bell South Internet home pages, as well as on The Drudge Report and He and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, have had a large presence on, a site that awards cash prizes to players of its casino-style games.

But his campaign aides were surprised to learn from a reporter last week that his banners had also showed up tens of thousands of times on, according to, the ad network his campaign uses, and Nielsen. They noted that FanFiction was mostly composed of PG- and G- rated material. But it also includes some pornographic fiction.

The aides at first said they did not believe that Mr. Romney’s spots had ever been on, but this weekend executives at confirmed that the spot had indeed run on the network over the course of two days in August. They said it was pulled down at the request of

Further testifying to the murkiness of the genre, disputed Nielsen’s frequency figures, saying, for instance, Mr. Romney’s banners had run 32,000 times on; Nielsen, which acknowledged that its data could be inflated, said they appeared 515,000 times.

Mr. Romney’s campaign said the spot had been placed in spite of a request to keep its ads off dating and alternative lifestyle sites, a request that may have been lost in communication with (Aides said they also asked that Romney ads be kept off Web pages with pornographic images, gambling or left-leaning political content.)

Ms. Finn said the Romney campaign was becoming more careful, sticking to more artfully chosen “subnetworks” within the system.

“We have learned,” she said. “It provides a danger, but there is also incredible opportunity.”