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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Bad Company

As I wrote about last month, placing political ads linked to search terms on widely used web sites is a smart and rapidly growing practice. But you do have to be careful about the inadvertant associations such ads sometimes create, as Barack Obama’s campaign has just learned.
A reporter for the New York Sun happened to notice that an Obama ad appeared as a “sponsored link” on the Amazon.com page for The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, the highly controversial book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt that some observers have claimed reflects ancient anti-semitic conspiracy theories. Whatever you think of the book, it’s definitely not one that a candidate for president (unless Pat Buchanan runs again) would want to snuggle up to.
Contacted by the Sun, the Obama campaign quickly took down the ad and foreswore any endorsement of the Mearsheimer/Walt book.
The Amazon ads are run by a subsidiary of the retailer called Clickriver, which associates advertisements with keywords that customers use to search for products on the Amazon website. The Obama camp purchased “politics” as a keyword, and thus, their ad got placed beside lots of political books — one of which happened to be particularly controversial. The whole thing was done by computer and was obviously unintentional and unavoidable.
This is going to happen more and more often. And who knows what the reaction will be next time? But when an algorithm determines the link between content and an advertisement without any human input — what’s a campaign to do? You might think to avoid the situation altogether, but that’s the wrong answer.
Here and now, I think we need to decide on a rule — when computers fail to anticipate a controversy, we don’t blame campaigns. Through the course of a modern election, there will be plenty of times when candidates legitimately stumble — an operative will develop foot-in-mouth disease, a senator will fall off a stage, or a nominee will completely underestimate the importance of an attack and go a solid month without refuting the charges. These are the times at which a media circus will be quasi-justifiable. But not when an innocuous ad is automatically linked to a contentious book.

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