Of the 100-plus candidates running in Philly’s May primary, few can afford to get on TV. But the internet’s a cheap alternative, if you know how to use it.

Primary election campaigns are targeting IP addresses to deliver their candidates’ messages — even if you’re not looking for them. They’re popping up in your Instagram and Facebook feeds with glossy videos and are gaming the Google ad market to get top billing on searches. (Psst, stop searching: Here’s our guide to all the candidates.)

Not everyone in the crowded field has figured it out. Many have failed to even bring their campaigns to the web at all, with nary a website, FB page or even a Twitter account.

While the online spends don’t compare to pricey television buys, campaign finance records show political campaigns have spent hundreds of thousands on digital media in 2019: over $4,000 on Google ads, nearly $6,200 on Facebook and Instagram and thousands more on digital consultants to devise strategies for their use.

So, who’s winning the internet election?

$25k to take down Jannie Blackwell

Jamie Gauthier, former head of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, has spent nearly $25,000 on digital media in her bid for West Philly’s 3rd District.

The pitch is easy to find. As long as you’re Googling from within the Philly region, even a broad searches like “City Council Philadelphia” can bring up an ad for Gauthier’s campaign page.

Ditto when you search for “Jannie Blackwell,” the veteran councilmember Gauthier is trying to unseat. (Blackwell doesn’t appear to have a re-election campaign website at all.)

That $25,000 figure also accounts for targeted ads on Instagram and Facebook.

Does digital outreach work on Philly voters? Gauthier’s team says it does. After the first week of ad targeting, campaign manager Trevor Maloney said, they had “literally dozens of voters calling us and stopping by our office.”

Screenshot of Google search results (Center City)

Honorable mention in online spending for a district Council race goes to Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. His deep-pocketed campaign has spent at least $3,000 on digital ads, so you might see a slick sponsored video pop up in your Facebook feed.

It’s a bit more sophisticated than Johnson’s 2015 re-election campaign, when his then-challenger was able to squat on domains like KenyattaJohnson.com and steer voters back to his own campaign website.

Bobby Henon pays for ‘Independent’

Local searches for Councilman Bobby Henon’s name will surface plenty of links about recent a scandalous federal indictment against the Northeast Philly lawmaker and his colleagues at the Local 98 electricians union.

But nowadays, you’ll also get a top-billed ad from Henon’s re-election campaign, branding himself as an “Independent Democrat.”

Screenshot of Google search results (from Center City)

That’s an apparent clapback to the picture federal prosecutors have painted of Henon — as the ventriloquist doll of powerful union leaders seeking to extend their interests in City Hall. Henon also has the endorsement of the city’s Democratic ward leaders in his district and serves as the party’s majority leader on Council.

It’s more so a sign Henon is actually running a race — despite having no challengers. His campaign finance reports show he’s spent over $160,000 this year in his campaign against no one.

Mayor Jim Kenney continues to troll

As Billy Penn noted in March, Mayor Jim Kenney’s team has been trolling his challengers with Google ads for months now. Queries for “Alan Butkovitz” or “Anthony Williams” present searchers with links to unflattering articles about both Democrats.

The team appears to have targeted people searching for “Philadelphia election” as well.

Paying for Google ads for your campaign website is an effective way to beat the algorithm, which may be boosting popular news articles about you — not always a good thing in Philadelphia.

The entire first page of search items for Sheriff Jewell Williams, who is running for re-election, brings up articles detailing his sexual harassment allegations and other questionable practices at his independently elected department.

Turning off personal search preferences, we searched for various races and candidates to see which candidates are jumping to the top with ads. Various searches containing “philadelphia” and “judge” will pull ads for Court of Common Pleas candidate Anthony Kyriakakis, who has also spent hundreds on the Facebook, records show.

Looking for info on the crowded city commissioners race? Immigrant rights activist Erika Almirón campaign’s will pop up is getting itself out there — a Democrat who is running for City Council at-large.

Screenshot of Google search results (from Center City)

But hey, no such thing as too much exposure, right?

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...