MSN Looks to Set Rules
For Online Political Ads

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The presidential primary season showed that much has changed on the Internet since Bob Dole couldn't remember his campaign Web site's URL four years ago. And as the growth of online political advertising has outpaced government regulation of it, the Microsoft Network has taken steps to govern itself.


"There are no laws on the books yet regarding the Internet in ... the political space," said Cyrus Krohn, manager of political advertising at MSN and associate publisher of news site Slate.com. "Right now it's catch as catch can. Could Steve Forbes have gone out and bought a portal site's home page for a month leading up to the primaries? Well, theoretically, yeah. Legally, yeah."


The Federal Communications Commission ensures that radio and television broadcasters give candidates equal access and that political commercials disclose who paid for them, among other guidelines. No such regulations exist for the Net - at least not yet.


So MSN, Redmond, WA, took matters into its own hands, Krohn told iMarketing News. The company's ad vehicles include a content channel devoted to politics, Hotmail, Slate.com, its MSNBC news venture, the LinkExchange online ad network, and rich media banner ads that run on MSN properties and elsewhere.


Krohn said the company decided not to let candidates buy up all the ad inventory on a single site. MSN offers equal exposure to buying candidates' adversaries, and Krohn claimed the network set the cost of a thousand ad impressions at the lowest it "can possibly provide."


"We felt it was important for several reasons," Krohn said. "Without laws on the books, could a candidate, after the fact, take someone to task claiming that they were treated unfairly on the Web because they weren't offered the same amount of space as their competitors?" MSN decided, apparently, that the answer was yes. Self-imposed standards help the company avoid accusations of favoritism.


Meanwhile, MSN fared well during the recent primary season and the period leading up to it, scoring $8 million in revenue from political advertising over the last six months.


Though big candidates are likely to become more cyber-savvy in coming elections, MSN has found that so far small, grass-roots organizations tend to have a better grasp of the the technological possibilities of the Internet.


The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals attacked vice president Al Gore's animal rights position by running a campaign on MSN showing an animal being gassed. It then encouraged viewers to complain to Gore via e-mail.


A spokesman at Gore's campaign headquarters was unable to elaborate on what kind of response the PETA campaign generated.


Citizens for Better Medicare used the network to reach senior citizens. The bi-partisan organization ran an ad that automatically generated the names and addresses of seniors' elected officials if they entered their zip code. The ad encouraged viewers to send their representatives a formatted letter that it also provided.


MSNBC and Slate.com have proven especially hot political advertising properties among the network's clients. MSN claims demographic studies have found that 80 percent of Slate's readership has contacted an elected official or grass-roots organization regarding a political issue, and more than 90 percent say they voted in the last election cycle.
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