This past June I created an online music video called "I Got a Crush on Obama" starring Amber Lee Ettinger as Obama Girl. The video and its resulting news coverage have now been seen more than 100,000,000 times on sites like YouTube and on TV programs ranging from CNN's "Situation Room" to ABC's "Good Morning America." My personal highlight was reading a blogger's post this week recommending dressing up as Obama Girl for Halloween this year.
On TV, Obama Girl Amber Lee Ettinger is typically asked, "So do you really have a crush on Obama?" (She does now.)
The question I commonly get asked is more complex: "What campaign advice would you give to candidates looking to use viral video?" Viral, meaning the content will be forwarded via email, be the subject of blogs and be mentioned not just in internet media but also by the so-called "mainstream" media: television, radio and newspapers.
Specifically, campaigns are looking for what makes videos both viral and politically effective. For a candidate, it's not enough to make a video that goes viral if it is merely sensationalist or captures a huge audience. It also has to promote the candidate effectively.
The best answer to the question "what campaign advice would you give to candidates looking to use viral video" calls to mind the line noted author and humorist Calvin Trillin identified as the earmark of pundits and commentators: "It's too soon to tell." YouTube is only a few years old and the internet itself is still in its adolescence.
In addition, while I've become obsessed with online video, my own political aspirations ended in the eighth grade when I was beaten soundly in my bid for class president.
Still, here are some online video tactics I would humbly suggest campaigns could use to their advantage, including pitfalls to be avoided.
Where can viral video work?
Viral videos can help campaigns in creating initial interest. Think of a video as a "hook," much like the cover of a book or a movie trailer. For instance, if it's funny and innovative, the superficial "wrapper" can lead people to want to know more. Of course, the "hook" should be tailored to the targeted voter: You won't create interest for young voters with a whitepaper. By its very nature, a video can help shape an image, especially by personalizing and "de-wonking" a candidate. A great example was the recent video by Hillary Clinton, a parody on the last episode of "The Sopranos." By using humor, the video helps soften the image of Hillary, perceived by some as smart but humorless. Online videos help campaigns respond quickly to attacks. And if the response uses humor or non-traditional approaches, it can avoid the appearance of the campaign being defensive. One wonders how John Kerry would have fared if he had produced a video poking fun at Republican leaders who avoided the draft but funded the Swift Boat critics of Kerry's war record. Clearly, viral campaigns can help in targeting a certain demographic. It's no secret that the early adopters of the internet and its nuances -- blogs, videos, instant messaging, et cetera -- are young and technologically progressive and, in many instances, alienated from politics. It has been estimated that the majority of the under 30 crowd depend on the internet rather than traditional media for getting news. Finally, online videos can really help stretch a budget. For resource-challenged candidates, videos offer the opportunity to reach out to millions for less than the price of filming a single TV ad, let alone running it on even a few local stations.
So what are internet-based videos not so good for? Several things:
Even if a video goes viral, usually it cannot communicate broad and complex positions. People will tune out wonky, long and boring videos. A video cannot remake a truly bad image. It would be hard for Larry Craig to restore his image among most U.S. groups with even 10 viral videos. Clearly viral videos can't carry an entire campaign, as the voter base is quite varied in its access to and familiarity with the internet. For the foreseeable future, campaigns will have to also rely on the traditional ways of meeting voters: door hangers, literature via U.S. mail, radio and TV ads. Viral videos have a somewhat short shelf life. Although all our videos are still available today through our website BarelyPolitical.com, about 70 percent of the views for each video occur in the first week of their airing.
I would add a final paradoxical thought: Politics in most countries is often a matter of life and death. Whether it's discussing issues of abortion, the death penalty, whether or not to go to war, how to fund deadly diseases or how much foreign aid to supply, campaigns to elect leaders are fairly serious matters. They are high-stakes, well-funded affairs not to be taken lightly. Either because of, or in spite of that, effective political viral videos usually operate on a lighter, sometimes playful and superficial plane. As time goes by, those who unravel that paradox will be effective, and join Obama Girl in the world of political videos gone viral.
Ben Relles is a creator for BarelyPolitical.com. .