Google defended itself against accusations that they had given President Obama special access to an experimental ad product on Tuesday. Having spotted an Obama ad on RealClearPolitics apparently built on technology that targeted specific email addresses, a staffer at the National Republican Senatorial Committee contacted a Google sales representative about the program, reports Politico. "This is a pre-alpha product that is being released to a select few clients," replied saleswoman Sirene Abou-Chakra. "I'd be happy to get you into the beta if you're interested."
The implication of those two sentences, of couse, is that the Obama campaign got special access to innovative hyper-targeted ad technology from one of the nation's largest advertising networks. Google's ad network somehow falls under the jurisdiction by chairman Eric Schmidt, who campaigned with Obama in 2008 and serves on the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. When accused of playing favorites--either by the NRSC or Politico, the report is unclear--Google wrote off the exclusivity language in Abou-Chakra's original email as inaccurate. From Politico:
But Google spokesman Jake Parrilo denied strenuously that the Obama campaign had been granted special access to the pilot program, and chalked the email up to inaccurate “puffery” by the sales representative. The ad that appeared on RealClearPolitics, he said, was not a Google ad at all.
“This is an experiment and while we generally do not comment on those experiments we can tell you that we have not sold a single CPL [cost-per-lead] ad unit to any political candidates or committees,” said Parrillo.
To unpack some some terms, "pre-alpha" is most certainly an experimental stage for a technology product, a stage often restricted to developers who can test for bugs. "Beta" usually implies a fairly private but fairly wide roll-out, though the qualifier means that the product is not completely finished. Google uses these terms pretty broadly. (As a point of reference, Google didn't take the beta tag off of Gmail until 2009, five years, after the first group of users were invited to test it.) This all means that, if that saleswoman wasn't lying, access to a pre-alpha technology that offered access to users' email addresses would be a boon to a political campaign. After all, some argue that Obama won in 2008 because of his web presence.
Google apparently works hard to honor party commitments and interests: "Parrillo told POLITICO that the Republican and the Democratic political ad sales teams at Google are kept separate and are unaware of the other side’s projects or deals." That actually sounds more shady than reassuring. Those deals, by the way, will produce an unprecedented flood of cash for Google. According to report last year in The Hill, Obama will increase his spending on web advertising from 4 percent in 2008 to 10 percent in 2012. With a team of devoted Democrat sales people incentivized to offer advantages without the Republican ad sales team knowing, it's understandable how "puffery" or even exclusive deal-offering could occur. Obama's 2012 campaign alone is expected to spend $1 billion total, $100 million of which could go towards on web advertising. That's a lot of commission for fast-talking ad sales reps.
Inevitably, we're kind of curious how the original ad popped up on RealClearPolitics. We asked them but didn't hear back in time for this post.