Thursday, February 5, 2004

Cookie-Cutter Candidates...

If Howard Dean demonstrated anything before he abandoned the race for the White House – anything besides his now notorious vocalizations, that is – it's that the internet can be more than a simple brochure-ware avenue for campaign communication. Indeed, in the past few national campaign seasons web-presence has become increasingly significant as a means of candidate saturation and communication.

And this spring's crop of Democratic and independent presidential contenders are no different. Each clings proudly to their website, even displaying their URLs above the names on many a lectern or podium.

We decided to take a look at three of the nation's most visible and controversial candidates' websites: Those of Democrats John Edwards and John Kerry, and that of independent Ralph Nader.

What first stuck us was the similarity of each site. With some slight variation on the part of, all three sites seemed to be cut from the same template. Indeed, we were reminded of Howard Dean's website (reviewed in Fight.Boredom's 2003.11 critique: How to Raise $200 Million Online).

Some similarity should be expected, in fact, as a result of their like subject-matter. Red, white, and blue serve as the dominant color scheme on all three sites. Common election symbols – the donkey, the vote-pin – and the ever-present map of the voting electorate, by state, adornes each homepage.

The Democrats' websites both focus on the active primary campaigns leading up to Super Tuesday. Both prominently feature recent images of their candidate at an event or giving a stump speech. Both feature near immediate responses to Bush policies and campaign accusations. And both – along with Nader's site, for that matter – use the now ubiquitous Blog-style posts to communicate fresh content from the candidate and their teams every day.

Kerry's website, slightly set apart in design from Edwards' and Nader's sites, does feature a few clever interactive communications tools that the other sites are remiss to exclude. Principal among these is his policy statements, a clean and well-built page only one click off the homepage outlining his platform. The greatest surprise therein was the outline of his first 100 days' priorities – each priority folds open revealing more detailed text, links to complete policy statements, and streaming video of speeches and radio addresses on the topic.

That being said, the problem of overall similarity remains. The challenge I brought to my coworkers exemplified this. By masking the candidate's logos, names, and faces on the homepages, they were unable to match the candidate to the website with any accuracy. Indeed, what become most striking was that the format of the sites did little to distinguish candidate or party. Nader's anti-party rhetoric was all that could give him away; Edwards and Kerry simply were simply indistinguishable – one reviewer even suggested their two hompages were the same site.

This similarity was, in fact, the initial inspiration for this critique – when first looking at candidate websites we weren't sure where one site ended and another began.

And these sites had other problems. Nader's website would occasionally load horribly mangled formatting, with content strewn across a huge empty white space in the middle of the page and with images misaligned beneath other content. Edwards' website featured a ticker which inspired epilepsy and, three-or-four clicks into the site, a less than user friendly brief on his platform. I eventually gave up trying to compare his policies to Kerry's.

And Nader's website perhaps suffers the worst insult of all: defamation. On my first attempt to visit the official Nader campaign website ( I instinctively visited first – an anti-Nader site criticizing his 2000 campaign and featuring images of burned Iraq children.

What these sites all do well, however, is what Howard Dean showed them how to do: Raise money. On Edwards' website you can even earn a free DVD or a copy of his mother's delicious Peanut Butter Pie (it does look really good). Nader's contributors are likewise encouraged to help him raise $70k for his 70th birthday.

If these candidates want to set themselves apart, they need to better distinguish their interactive communications. They certainly would never settle for ambiguous television ads or print materials – why settle for cookie-cutter websites? Each candidate needs to distinguish himself from his competitors in every arena of the campaign.

Now if only we can get then to distinguish themselves politically... fb

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