Online advertising today is used to drive purchases, but it’s only a matter of time before governments use it to shape public opinion and garner support – and not just among their own citizens.
Let’s say you are the U.S. State Department and your goal was to change opinion in Iran. In the old days you would try to drop leaflets, pipe in short-wave radio, or spread some rumor. You might also try calling lots of people with a “poll” with the aim of getting them to think another way.
But today, the cheapest, quickest, and most effective vehicle for mass outreach is Internet advertising. For a little more than $2 million, the U.S. government can show 10 online ads to each of Iran’s 35 million online citizens everyday for 30 days. A more targeted campaign would cost less than the yearly cost of one soldier in Afghanistan.
Instead of having messages and ads shown to everyone like traditional advertising, governments can show online ads to just their target audience. Not only can Internet ads be shown to people browsing particular sites (like MySpace, Facebook, CNN.com, and most international websites), it can also be further segmented by demographics, geography, purchasing behavior, interests, and more. And while man of these sites are blocked in targeted countries, many popular overseas message boards are happy to take advertisements that might cost less than $100.
Buying online ads for something that does not appear to be political would be simple. And like Iran, targeting ads to people in most non-Western countries is cheap.
As our policy-makers become more familiar with new technology, governments will increasingly try to influence each other’s citizens through online persuasion (especially in cheap markets).
This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on implementation … but it is likely going to happen as governments realize what Scott Brown realized in Massachusetts — that online ads can move poll numbers.