Throughout this arduous presidential campaign, the new online political enthusiasm has significantly affected the visual landscape of the internet. Perhaps the strangest symptom of this change is the degree to which political banner ads have invaded our web space. Whether bearing the official logos and graphic identities of the major campaigns, or the crude, cobbled typography of web-marketing firms, they have popped up almost anywhere we might go to read the news, validate our opinions, watch three-minute videos, or otherwise waste time during the workday. And for the past year or so, I've been collecting my favorites.
Of course, the official banner ads placed by the major campaigns are unsurprisingly predictable and strictly on message, usually consisting of a bold tagline along with an image of the candidate and his or her accompanying logo. Nonetheless, there has been the occasional visual peculiarity. One short-lived ad from Hillary Clinton in February bluntly implores us to "keep her in it, so we can win it," and in case it wasn't clear she was asking for money, dollar bills blowing in the wind were super-imposed on top of her logo.
Even weirder, John McCain has developed a reputation for banner ad gaffes, twice making headlines this fall by releasing ads prematurely. The day before the first presidential debate, during the "suspension" of his campaign, many readers of the Wall Street Journal's site spotted an ad with McCain's beaming face in front of an American flag, above the tagline, in all caps, "McCain Wins Debate!" Apparently not learning their lesson, the day after the vice presidential debate, the McCain campaign released an ad praising Sarah Palin's debate performance with a laudatory quote attributed to "Famous Person." In this case, the timing was right – somebody just forgot to fill in all the blanks.
More eclectic, if far less pervasive, are the ads placed by Political Action Committees, news organizations, political merchandise-hawkers, and other semi-legitimate groups that have some kind of stake in the election. These can be helpful if you sympathize with "Catholics against Joe Biden", or if you need to know where to get the latest "Nobama" or "We Will Barack You" T-shirts. In February, the RNC released a series mock Valentines Day ads from democratic candidates. Displaying the smiling faces of Senators Clinton or Obama, over a background of floating red hearts, and featuring sentiments like, "If I could rearrange the alphabet, I'd put T and AX together," or, "Three years in the U.S. Senate qualifies me to wish you happy Valentine's Day," these were some of the most memorable ads of the year.
By far the most common political banner ads, unavoidable on the Drudge Report and Huffington Post, are those which coax us into taking part in some kind of online poll. They are ubiquitous and annoying, but much more entertaining than the non-political ads they have replaced. Presumably from the people that brought you such gems as "you are the 10,000,000th visitor to this site" and "click here to win a free iPod," ads such as "Should Hillary Clinton run for president? Answer the question and get a free laptop," bring a certain level of topical absurdity to the election season. From the innocuous ("Will Barack be the 1st Black President?"; "Does Palin deserve V.P.?") to the outlandish ("Who's More Likely to Cheat: Obama or McCain?"), these ads are always eye-catching, and more often than not tied to some kind of reward for your participation, whether it be a "complimentary $100 Amex card" or a "dinner for two at Chili's."
Where do these ads lead to? Usually, clicking on them will bring you to a generic credit card offer, a right-wing news aggregator, a site that asks for all of your personal information, or pages and pages of promotional items (Choose at least one!) that you have to sift through just to answer a simple question like, "Which candidate is better for investors?"
One only has to walk by a New York street vendor, or pick up a paper coffee cup declaring support for one candidate or the other at the local gas station, to get the feeling that almost everyone is trying to cash in on this historic election. Generic web advertising has followed suit, overwhelmingly adopting politics as their subject matter. After November 4, these oddities will disappear and be replaced by the more familiar offers for free iPods and credit reports. But their humor, attitude, and slapdash construction make them an under-appreciated addition to the graphic vernacular of U.S. political campaigns.