Copyright 2000 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.
September 18, 2000, MONDAY, Late Sports Final Edition
SECTION: FINANCIAL; Pg. 50
LENGTH: 806 words
HEADLINE: Web vote sale all about buzz;
Effort aims to highlight flawed electoral system
BYLINE: BY SALLY DUROS
Web site Voteauction.com started as a student project, sparred with the law and landed in the portfolio of an Austrian marketing company.
The attempt to create a marketplace to buy and sell votes of citizens willing to cast ballots for whomever pays them to do so fits into a broader pattern of activity that is particularly suited to the Internet: guerrilla marketing.
The purpose of guerrilla marketing isn't to sell something. It's simply to create a buzz.
And Internet marketers are becoming increasingly adept at the technique.
Ubermorgen.com in late August bought Voteauction.com after the latter ran afoul of U.S. election laws.
Voteauction.com's tag line sounds like a parody: "Bringing democracy and capitalism closer together."
At the close of business last Friday, 220 Illinois residents had posted their votes for sale and attracted total bids of $5,300, or $24.09 apiece, the sixth-best price in the nation, according to the Web site.
Voteauction.com may have hit an intuitive chord with a U.S. public that again threatens to sit out the election in record numbers, but it also hit a legal brick wall. It's against the law to sell your vote or to ask somebody to sell you their vote. The law is clear: Sell your vote and go to jail.
Douglas Kellner, a commissioner at the New York City board of elections, viewed the site as a "challenge to the integrity of the electoral system." The board brought pressure to bear, and Voteauction.com creator James Baumgartner, a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N.Y., shut down the site and sold it to Ubermorgen.com.
"I started it as a viable business that could operate under election laws, and I think it makes a serious statement about our electoral system as well," Baumgartner said.
Now Voteauction.com belongs to a guerrilla marketing specialist. Ubermorgen.com offers shock/drama marketing concepts and consulting. The company is based in Vienna, Austria. Listed as a client and on the resume of Ubermorgen.com principal Hans Bernhard is the company called etoy. Etoy is the online artists collective that last year beat back a challenge to its domain name by eToys, the e-commerce toy store.
The etoy vs. eToys battle is regarded by some as the watershed clash between the Internet "community" and the Internet "industry." The community won after waging a one-month war during which etoy said "hundreds of well-informed people and media experts contested the aggressor on every level."
It also is a well-documented case of guerrilla marketing.
This kind of below-the-radar marketing is becoming a real issue, said Irv Rein, professor of communication science at Northwestern University in Evanston and co-author of the book High Visibility. "It used to be that creation of word of mouth came from the streets, but the new technology allows us to change our whole concept of word of mouth."
Now it is word of mouse.
Mindshare Internet Campaigns creates such efforts. In 1996, the firm staged the Black Page Protest against the Communications Decency Act. During the protest, thousands of Web sites (including Yahoo! and Netscape) went black, helping to galvanize the public against online content regulations.
"Voteauction.com is a wonderful parody," said Jonah Seiger, co-founder of mindshare. "It's an example of using the Internet to generate discussion and draw attention to an issue."
"These are age-old tactics that are influenced by the medium," Seiger said. "The tradition of media strategists has moved from handbills to television to the Internet."
If it is a parody, Voteauction.com offers a dangerous kind of satire because it asks the viewer to commit a crime by selling his or her vote.
"I think Congress needs to administer hearings on how the Internet can facilitate applications of this nature," said Deborah Phillips, chairwoman and president of the Voting Integrity Project, a nonpartisan group aiming to raise awareness of Internet voting issues. "They should be investigating this."
She may be right. Leaders at Ubermorgen.com said they think a worldwide market exists for the buying and selling of votes, even though the practice is illegal everywhere.
"We do believe that the trend of selling votes directly will continue to grow, and we will have a legalization within the next 20 to 30 years," Bernhard wrote in an e-mail.
"We see a very large market for this business. We want to cut out the middleman. We want to turn (business-to-business elections into business-to-consumer elections) from a financial point of view," he said. "Opportunities in the U.S., in Europe (especially Germany and the U.K.) and in Asia will guarantee us the return of investment and a large share in the (business-to-commerce) election market."
Sally Duros is a Chicago free-lance writer at sally£sduros.com.
GRAPHIC: See related chart page 50.; VICTORIA AROCHO; ASSOCIATED PRESS
LOAD-DATE: September 20, 2000