Presidential campaigns and the political parties are venturing into virtual advertising this year like never before, leading some Internet industry analysts to anticipate a banner year for political advertising online.
"Whatever is happening now is more than there's been before," said Stu Ginsberg, a New York-based Internet advertising consultant.
Political candidates and parties used online ads in past years mainly as a way to gather e-mail addresses or raise money. In 2000, Bush and Democrat Al Gore both dabbled on the Internet with ads, mainly for those purposes, but there efforts were limited.
Campaigns have started to see the Internet as a more potent tool as they seek different ways to get their messages out, all the while mindful of the fact that the public now gets its information from multiple sources, including Web sites.
The percentage of households with Internet access has increased to 50.5 percent in 2001, up from 26.2 percent just three years earlier, Census figures show.
Strategists in both parties say they are drawn to buy ad space on the Internet because it combines the targeting power of both TV ads and direct mail. Ads can run on sites that cater to a particular type of consumer, or they can be tailored to geographic locations based on zip codes or other information users supply with they register for certain sites.
All that allows politicians and party operatives to reach certain slices of their constituencies with precise messages that aren't filtered through the traditional media.
On Wednesday, the Bush re-election campaign will post a "Webmercial," a version of its new education TV commercial featuring the first lady on about three dozen Internet sites. Many of them target women, such as Parenting, Baby Zone and Ladies Home Journal. The ad also will appear on newspaper Web sites in several presidential battleground states.
The campaign declined to say how much the Internet buy will cost, but the goal is to convey a specific message to specific audiences - Internet-savvy women who don't watch a lot of television, and voters in swing states.
Kerry's campaign plans to run message ads online starting in late summer.
His campaign has been ahead of the game, and has posted mostly fund-raising ads on more than 100 Web sites. In March, the campaign placed an ad on The New York Times site as a test. Within the first six hours, the campaign says it collected five times as much money as the cost of the ad itself.
From January through April, Kerry's ads have appeared on Web sites at least 60 million times, according to Nielsen's NetRatings, which tracks Internet ads.
One Kerry ad on CBS MarketWatch showed a cartoon of Bush putting nickels into a jar and said: "If we had a nickel for every time Bush misled us, we'd have a new president. Make your nickels count now!"
Another on Salon.com showed the word "Halliburton," the oil services company formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, as it flashed a message saying: "For the 1st time in history a corporation was allowed to invade a nation. No wonder the UN wasn't involved. It's time to unseat George W. Bush."
The Republican National Committee has been posting anti-Kerry ads on 1,400 Web sites, and the Democratic National Committee is considering Web site advertising as well.
Political ads on the Internet have the potential to be nastier than those on TV or radio because the content of Web ads isn't restricted by law. Television and radio ads now include statements by the candidates themselves saying, "I approved this ad" - an effort to clean up the mudslinging.
Legislation pending in Congress would expand that requirement to other media, including the Internet, but the prospects are slim that the bill will be acted on during a presidential election year.
Michael Cornfield, research director at George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, said he expects record-level spending on Internet ads this year.
But regardless of the growth, he said such advertising is unlikely to make up a significant portion of each campaign's overall advertising budget, which typically is eaten up by the high cost of advertising on television.
By Liz Sidoti