New websites allow everyday citizens to become political media consultants

As of last week, virtually anyone can approve this message.

A pair of advertising heavyweights in recent days launched new efforts aimed at opening up the political media world to small-time candidates and everyday citizens.

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One of them, VoterVoter.com , will allow any individual to sign up, throw his or her approval on a television ad for a political candidate or cause, and show it to a targeted audience. The other, Spot Runner, launched a political program aimed at helping less well-funded campaigns get on TV, radio and the Web.

The efforts build on a growing trend dubbed “producer democracy,” in which the Internet allows individuals, as opposed to big companies and organizations, to influence the political process through their own creative content.

“This gives people the ability to be their own political media consultant, upload their own ads and put them on television,” said Julie Germany, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University. “It demystifies the process; it makes it easier.”

Both sites, which are nonpartisan, seek to break down barriers to political advertising, which include expense, ad production and federal regulation.

They allow for small ad buys and feature pre-produced content and access to consultants. So for as little as $500 to $1,000, individuals can get their ad on the air.

VoterVoter.com also promises to handle truth-in-advertising compliance and the required Federal Election Commission (FEC) paperwork, filing the ad buys as independent expenditures on behalf of individuals.

The tools provided by the site allow people to go beyond campaign contribution maximums and 527 groups and build on the type of support engendered by volunteering and holding fundraising events, said Eric Mathewson, founder of VoterVoter.com. Mathewson is also the founder and CEO of WideOrbit, the largest advertising sales, traffic and billing software company in North America, according to the National Association of Broadcasters.

“In practice, people could always do this, but because putting together a TV commercial and buying TV time just seemed a little bit too onerous, it just didn’t happen,” Mathewson said.

Mathewson said he has heard from Democrats and Republicans who wanted to do more to help an individual candidate but were stifled by $2,300 contribution limits set by the 2002 campaign finance bill known as McCain-Feingold.

The self-advertising websites come in a long line of attempts to circumvent such restrictions. In recent months, supporters of Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-Texas) presidential campaign sought contributions to fly a blimp bearing the candidate’s name from North Carolina to New Hampshire.

Mathewson says he is unconcerned about potential legal obstacles to his effort, although he has hired FEC campaign counsel and is seeking FEC opinions on different variations on what individuals can do.

Specifically, he wonders whether individuals may take video clips from candidate ads to make new ads and whether the act of individuals using ads created by other individuals constitutes some kind of political action committee.

Whatever the legal pitfalls might be, experts are generally more concerned about the democratic ramifications of such an approach.

Given that political ads are already suffocating voters in some areas of the country and examples like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s much-maligned attacks on Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004, opening up the airwaves to just anyone could be a risky proposition.

Germany said only something really controversial would likely make the ads a factor on the national stage.
“There is a potential for this kind of thing, but it’s going to take something big for it to take off, like the Swift Boat ads,” Germany said.

Evan Tracey, COO of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, said any such controversy would likely be neutered at the station level, with the stations refusing to run the ad.

He said that, without consultants shaping and timing the messages, VoterVoter.com ads have the potential to cause candidates much more harm than good, while Spot Runner has a better chance to catch on.

“It’s probably ultimately a gateway drug for more television advertising,” Tracey said of Spot Runner. “It sort of opens up the option of TV to a number of different candidates that might otherwise ignore it.”

Tracey added that the services are likely relegated to helping local candidates and causes, because anybody with serious enough money to affect statewide and federal races is likely to hire a consultant or form a 527.

Virginia state Del. Bob Marshall (R) is one local candidate who said Spot Runner helped him in his 2007 reelection bid. He’s now running for the GOP nomination for Senate in Virginia against former Gov. Jim Gilmore.

If he gets past the nominating convention — where it doesn’t make much sense to advertise — he said he would use Spot Runner in the general election.

The company, which is known for helping small- and medium-sized businesses advertise, has hired former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), GOP consultant Mike Murphy and Democratic consultant Bob Shrum for its political advisory board.

“Because of the way they package this, they really reduce the production cost,” said Marshall, who spent $135,000 total to win reelection. “That makes it very attractive to a candidate like myself, who doesn’t raise as much money as other people.”