Wyden a Pioneer on Web Ads

Posted April 22, 2008 at 6:50pm

A new Internet ad campaign by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) aimed at branding him as a champion of working Americans while also promoting his universal health care bill is an early example of campaigns taking advantage of the loose controls governing Web advertising for candidates.

The ad does not have a disclaimer in the video –– unlike those required on television –– because it originated on Wyden’s Web site and then migrated to other popular sites.

Earlier this month, the ad was picked up on YouTube. Although designed as a campaign advertisement, the spot does not mention his 2010 re-election. Because it debuted on his campaign site, it does not state who paid for the ad. In fact, the ad appears to have been developed by Careyoukeep.com and has the look of an interest group advertisement trying to gin up public support for a health care bill.

Playing off the famous “Morning in America” ad that former President Ronald Reagan used, the spot opens with a montage of drone-like office and service industry workers going about their jobs, with a narrator describing the doldrums of their daily work lives.

“They’ll struggle, they’ll grovel and just generally just get BLEEP on. … But with Sen. Ron Wyden’s bipartisan Healthy Americans’ Act, a new day is dawning,” the narrator intones as the footage then shows despondent workers suddenly awakening from their malaise.

The ad, which never mentions Wyden’s election committee, ends with a copier spitting out pages with the words “To Learn More About the Healthy Americas Act, visit: www.careyoukeep.com.”

Viewers who go to the site will find themselves instead at standtallforamerica.com, Wyden’s re-election site. According to Wyden’s chief of staff, Josh Kardon –– who is also the political director for his campaign –– careyoukeep is nothing more than the creation of the campaign’s ad team at GMMB.

“Careyoukeep.com is a political campaign site. It’s campaign funded, and it redirects you to standtallforamerica.com, which is clearly identified,” Kardon said, adding that “careyoukeep isn’t anybody’s organization.”

According to Kardon, he worked with GMMB’s David Smith to develop the ad, primarily as a way to pre-emptively brand Wyden’s efforts on health care in a positive light before the race begins. As part of that project, GMMB registered the careyoukeep domain name.

Wyden then had Marc Elias, his campaign attorney, vet the ad campaign to ensure it complies with campaign finance laws and ethics rules. “Because this involves campaign activities, I consulted first with our election lawyer, who assured us we are in full compliance with the law and Senate rules,” Kardon said.

Jan Baran, an ethics attorney with Wiley Rein, agreed, saying that while Senate Rule 38 does prohibit lawmakers from maintaining “unofficial accounts,” the types of spending it covers is fairly narrow. For instance, while it prohibits using campaign funds to pay for franked mail or office equipment, it does not prohibit lawmakers from using outside advertising agencies to put together spots like the Wyden ad, Baran said.

Additionally, Baran said that because the ad originates on Wyden’s campaign page –– which is clearly identified as a political site –– Wyden is able to avoid having to include an explicit disclosure statement when it appears elsewhere.

As a result, viewers who come across the ad on YouTube won’t know they are actually watching a campaign advertisement –– unless they go to careyoukeep.com and find themselves instead at the virtual home of Wyden’s campaign.

Kardon acknowledged that while the ad is primarily designed for his re-election campaign, it also has the added benefit of raising the profile of his legislation. “I won’t be disappointed if we do good for the cause of universal health care if we also do good by Ron’s re-election. And neither would Ron,” Kardon said.

Elias said federal election laws and the Senate ethics rules have flexibility to allow these types of activities, and that running Web ads that don’t clearly identify themselves as a campaign ad –– or even connected to the candidate –– benefits incumbents. These types of ads have a “profoundly positive effect on officeholders like Ron Wyden as a candidate,” Elias said, because lawmakers “are defined in some measure by the voters by the types of legislation they are associated with.”