David Vitter's Digital Advertising Penance

The John Bel Edwards for Governor digital ad campaign began on October 25th, one day after Edwards turned out a commanding lead in the primary. From then until an hour before the runoff polls closed on November 21st, the campaign spent $83,908.38 on digital promotion. Of this, $47,125.10 was spent on Search ads (the kind that appear on your results page when you’re looking for something online), $3,202.06 was spent on Display ads (image ads that appear on monetized websites) and $32,146.69 went to video ad promotion. The remainder was spent on promotion of Facebook posts and tweets, handled by Edwards’ communications director, Mary-Patricia Wray of Top Drawer Strategies.

Determining the Edwards campaign’s digital ad spending was as easy as logging in (or, for that matter, looking at the campaign finance reports). I wanted to compare with Vitter’s campaign, but that insight is not as forthcoming.

Vitter’s digital platform, soup to nuts, was set up and administrated by Harris Media of Austin, Texas (more on Harris here). As such, I have to rely on the Vitter campaign’s expenditure reports to discern how their spending compares. And their reports are decidedly cloudy in this regard; disbursements to Harris Media fall into eight categories, some of them ambiguous. By elimination and amount, the likely category for digital advertising expenditure is “Electronic Media Expense.”

The single payment to Harris Media for Electronic Media Expense during the runoff was on November 19th in the amount of $150,000. This is nearly 200% of the Edwards campaign’s spending on digital advertising (and this is on top of over $65,000 Vitter spent in this category before the runoff). 

Why the huge difference between the two? I can make some good guesses.

  1. It’s entirely possible that Electronic Media Expense includes additional costs beyond digital advertising, although I am not sure what they could be since commissions and website and production expenses paid to Harris are broken out as separate expenditure lines in the campaign finance reports. As a competitor, I can’t exactly ask Harris for further itemization, and they would probably be reluctant even to speak with a journalist about their spending on 2015’s most notorious loss (although I certainly hope Jeremy Alford or Tyler Bridges will give it a try).
  2. Vitter knew he had many rivers to cross after his poor primary showing – his internal polling likely reconfirmed this in subsequent weeks – so he tried to bury his problems under a mound of cash. Harris cast a wide net with the money; they calculated (or miscalculated) that search ads should be spread across multiple providers – I saw sponsored results for David Vitter searches on Google, Yahoo!, and Bing. I elected to buy search ads exclusively with Google AdWords, as Google stably commands roughly 65% of search market share.
  3. Vitter’s baggage had a direct financial impact on his digital campaign. Explaining how requires talking briefly about search ads, which I have avoided so far because it can veer toward complexity and boredom.

When it comes to search ads, you don’t “own” anything – not even your own name. You bid for everything. A clickthrough to a campaign website generated from a search keyword (like “governors race” or “early voting locations”) can vary in actual cost based on the time of day or day of the week, but in general a higher bid means a higher place for your ad on the results page. The beauty of it is that you only pay your bid if someone clicks on the ad.

In most cases, bids in branding campaigns are a long game played out in pennies; one of the appeals of digital search advertising is how cost-effective it can be to reach or mobilize a large group of people. In competitive political races, sensitive keyword bids can ramp up to dollars. In this case, based on my observations, Harris Media bid as high as 15 to 17 dollars for a front-page position on the keyword “David Vitter.” This is very unusual and underscores how important it was for the Vitter campaign to control the conversation around their candidate’s name and associated topics; it was in their best interest for searches on Vitter’s name to return advertising for his platform or reassurances of his commitment to family values at the very top of the page, rather than news stories about the prostitution scandal, private surveillance, or abandonment by some high-profile legislators. I speculate that, between this and likely heavy promotion of the “Difficult Times” video ad, David Vitter cost himself a great deal of money online just by being David Vitter.