United States President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, have adopted an advertising tactic referred to as brand hijacking that companies have used for years to market wares to Web users searching for information on competitors.
People who type one candidate's name into Google's search box in some markets have seen ads for his opponent. A search for "Barack Obama," for instance, has yielded ads for Romney, while entering "Mitt Romney" has resulted in ads for Obama. Romney has used a similar tactic on Facebook.
The approach is designed to help the candidates raise awareness among users of the Web or social networks. Used by companies, the practice has also stirred controversy, resulting in lawsuits that alleged it enables trademark violation. While court rulings have been mixed over whether the form of advertising is legal, it can breed confusion for voters seeking information about one candidate to be shown ads for another, said Peter Harvey, an attorney at Harvey Siskind.
"There are some real negatives in terms of causing consumer confusion and misdirecting people," said Harvey, who practices intellectual property law. "And it's quite intentional. So, it's a problem."
Eric Goldman, professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, said some voters may consider it a "bare knuckles" marketing method that's beneath candidates seeking the highest US political office.
"We might view it as not presidential enough," said Goldman, who said he himself doesn't find it off-putting. "I could see other people saying I don't think that's the way we want the marketing presented to us."
Buying ads that appear when people search for a competitor occurs commonly on search engines. Google, for instance, lets advertisers pay for their message to appear as an ad alongside results of a search for a competing brand, product or company. Michael Young, an attorney based in Plano Texas, refers to the practice as "brand hijacking."
Obama and Romney have both spent on this form of advertising this year, according to estimates by Rise Interactive, a Chicago-based digital-marketing agency. Romney has paid for his information to appear when people search for "Barack Obama" and "Obama," while Obama has paid for his results to appear when people search for "Mitt Romney."
The amount spent on these ads amounted to tens of thousands of dollars or less in the third quarter, according to Rise Interactive. That's pocket change for campaigns with budgets upwards of about US$2 billion combined for this election.
Still, showing up in Internet searches is an important tactic, said Zac Moffatt, digital director for Mitt Romney for President.
Facebook's take on this kind of advertising is newer and less proven than Google's. It only began testing a form of the ads in July. Rather than using keywords like Google, Facebook lets marketers bid on categories that people may be looking for on the social network.
"We think of search a lot of times as intent," Moffatt said. "If you can participate in that conversation the likelihood that you're relevant is much higher. It's pretty specific."
The Romney campaign's digital staff has more than 140 people, including a "sizeable part" focused on social networking, Moffatt said. To help it reach part of the 1 billion people on Facebook, Romney has bought query-based ads called "Sponsored Results," as well as other forms of advertising, such as marketing messages tailored to mobile users, he said, declining to discuss dollar amounts.
While Obama has more Facebook fans, Romney's fan page may be creating more buzz. Obama has attracted 31.7 million "likes," while Romney has 11.9 million. Still, the number of people leaving comments or shared posts about Romney's page - a measure of engagement - was recently at 2.5 million, compared with Obama's 2.34 million.
Obama's campaign also touted its digital strategy.
"Our online advertising efforts are aimed at reaching voters as efficiently as possible and in a way that is tailored to their interests," Adam Fetcher, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said in an e-mailed statement. "That's how we can most effectively communicate our messages."
-Bloomberg with assistance from Don Jeffrey in New York