Net ads need to define terms

I apologize in advance to my editor, my publisher and my business partner for this column.
Someone whose day job is issue advocacy should probably never bad-mouth any well-funded advertising campaign. Who knows, they could be a potential client. Certainly I don’t want to discourage anyone from buying space in this paper.

I apologize in advance to my editor, my publisher and my business partner for this column.

Someone whose day job is issue advocacy should probably never bad-mouth any well-funded advertising campaign. Who knows, they could be a potential client. Certainly I don’t want to discourage anyone from buying space in this paper.

But I just can’t keep quiet any longer. I don’t recall any issue in which so much money has been so badly spent as in the “net neutrality” battle.

For weeks the ads were on television, radio and every Beltway publication. A lot of intelligent people tried to figure out what point either side was trying to make, to no avail. Finally we thought it was over when the Senate Commerce Committee apparently killed the amendment for this session in an 11-11 tie vote.

But they’re baaaack. The ads are running again, and they are not making any more sense than they did before the committee vote.

With only a few more weeks of work left on the congressional calendar, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) talking of trying to get everyone out of town even earlier than expected, it is puzzling that either side would still be spending big money on the issue. But the telco side of the battle rolled out full-page print ads and spots on local television this week. That’s a big buy. One can only assume they wanted to show they were still doing something, whether or not there is going to be any further action on the issue in this session of Congress.

For the record, my firm does not have a dog in this fight, and I don’t want to argue the merits of the issue. Roughly, the battle breaks down to Internet content providers such as Amazon, Google, eBay, Yahoo and others who want to be assured unlimited access for their content and the so-called “Baby Bells,” the phone companies that want the freedom maybe to charge different rates to different content providers on their growing broadband networks. It is a fight over possible business plans.

This entire advocacy advertising effort, by both sides, has been an example of bad messaging. One of the fundamental rules of campaigns I learned in my years working candidates was that “if you define the terms, you win the debate.” In this case, neither side defined the issue in such a way that anyone outside their lobbying circles and a few staff members could understand.

As a professional it is frustrating to see so much money spent and so little actual communication happen. If your goal is only to have lobbyists talk to members, senators and their staffs, why run ads? You might as well revert to old-fashioned one-on-one lobbying. I suspect in this case that was a lot more efficient than the millions of dollars spent on advertising that simply left people scratching their heads.

So what is wrong with the messaging in the ads? Pretty much everything.

We know that people on the Hill are inundated with information — up to 5,000 messages a day from print publications, television, cable, radio, e-mail, the Internet and even the Metro. To communicate with this harried bunch you have to break through the clutter. Neither side has done that.

In fact the big spender, the Hands Off the Internet coalition, seems determined to make the millions they’ve reportedly spent turn into wallpaper: print ads filled with disconnected newspaper quotes and the occasional bird’s-eye view of a nondescript industrial site identified as the complex from which Google wants to take over the Internet.

There is no focus to the ads. There is no central message. And we know from years of research and experience that a page of newspaper quotes is about the least-read form of advertising one can possibly design.

The Silicon Valley side has done less advertising, but it hasn’t been any better. They began by letting the Baby Bells steal their core message and turn it into a coalition name. Their ads have pretty much looked like their opponents’, with no unique message to communicate why the government should mandate unfettered access to the new pipelines.

Clearly there is a lot at stake in this fight, and it will be around for a while. It is unlikely there will be any resolution this fall. One can only hope that when the battle is joined again at least one side will have someone involved who can find a message and stay on it.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail:
bgoddard@thehill.com