A Kickstarter for Political Ads

Scene from a political ad, produced by the Common Sense Coalition, currently seeking funds through Social Teeth

One of the more promising business ideas to come out of a contest held at the Aspen Ideas Festival this year was a project called Social Teeth.

The two-month-old startup, the creation of a recent Stanford graduate named Elaine Chang, aims to shake up the way people view political advertising on television. Social Teeth began in part with Chang’s frustration: Because TV ad time is so expensive, the power to place ads before audiences tends to be concentrated among a few monied groups, namely political parties and committees, and the high-dollar donors behind super PACs.

Chang, who is 24, wants to lower the barrier to entry. So she’s built a platform for people to make political ads about issues they care about that then have a shot at being aired in prime time.

It works like this: Individuals or groups make an ad—let’s say about gun control—and put it on YouTube. If the ad gets a thousand hits, the creators can submit it to Social Teeth. Once the submission is accepted, Social Teeth pairs the ad’s creators with Aegis, a major media buying firm.

Aegis then acts as a consultant to the upstart ad makers, helping them come up with a strategy to get their ad aired. Let’s say you want your gun control ad to reach women under age 45 in the Midwest. Aegis might suggest you try to broadcast it on the Lifetime channel. The company calculates roughly how much it would cost to show the minute-long ad on Lifetime on a Wednesday night.

Let’s say it costs $15,000. At that point, Social Teeth follows the Kickstarter model. You try to drum up contributions to your $15,000 fundraising goal among family, colleagues, and friends. If you meet your goal, Aegis will help you place your ad on Lifetime. Both Aegis and Social Teeth take a cut.

Chang says her project aims to overcome the confirmation bias problem in social media, in which people use their “mini-soapbox” mainly to broadcast to people who already share their views. “Social Teeth is about getting your voice heard by a wider public,” she says. She adds that her model wouldn’t work without having a company like Aegis on board. “Advertising outside of the digital realm is very untransparent and relationship-based,” says Chang, who earned her engineering degree at Stanford in 2010 and worked as a battery engineer at Better Place before launching the company. “With Social Teeth, people not only have access costwise, but they also have access to relationships.”

Aegis sees an opportunity in Chang’s venture. “When you look at the market in general, you see democratization of content creation and consumers having more control of the products they buy, and the ability to make their opinions heard by people who typically wouldn’t listen,” says Sam Huston, a partner with JumpTank, a subsidiary of Aegis that has signed on as a consultant with Social Teeth. “Social Teeth is the next iteration of that.”

Since the company’s launch in July, the first round of ads drew supporters of marijuana legalization (the ad was put together by Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s campaign), abortion rights, and debt reduction.

It’s too early to tell whether Social Teeth will be a success; the fundraising campaigns haven’t even reached their deadlines yet. But you can see how the idea could catch on, particularly among those who feel their issues are being overlooked by the political establishment. It’s not surprising that advocates for legalizing marijuana would be one of the first to use the company’s services. With the exception of libertarians and Ron Paul, most politicians don’t want to touch the issue. A slew of pro-legalization ads airing during the Daily Show—the campaign is aiming to raise $50,000 toward that goal—could give the issue more prominence.

Chang herself is the first to admit the whole thing is a giant experiment. “The first step we are taking is making the experience of contributing and sharing ads more wacky and interesting,” she says in an e-mail. “If you have ideas, let me know.”

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