by Anna Sabella
YouTube and other online communities are emerging as major campaign
vehicles this election.
Democrats and Republicans alike are banking on the popular free video
site to reach new voters and regularly upload ads for their candidates
at no cost. The site also partnered with CNN to allow voters to ask
questions directly during primary debates.
Gregory Payne, an associate professor of Organizational and Political
Communication at Emerson College, said the site has “revolutionized
the way we look at political campaigns.”
And it has revolutionized the way candidates get their word out as well.
After the Las Vegas Democratic debate, for example, Joe Biden’s
website posted a video of clips of all the candidates agreeing with
him, entitled “Joe is
Right.
” On Mitt Romney’s YouTube page there are
video clips from the recent Republican debate as well as clips from
his speech about religion.
Norbert Mundorf, a professor of Communications Studies at the
University of Rhode Island, agreed with Payne that YouTube has created
a communications revolution — one that carries over into other aspects
of campaigning.
“YouTube is part of a greater trend, commonly called Web2.0, which is
characterized by the ability of individuals to upload and post
messages, videos, audio, and images ‘bottom-up’ rather than the
conventional ‘top-down’ approach of conventional media,” Mundorf said.
Once focused on pins and pamphlets, campaigns this year are more
focused on technology — from podcasts to interactive campaign websites
that the candidates create.
YouTube, for example, enables campaigns to run the same ads online for
free that they’ve invested in heavily on commercial television in
crucial early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. And those without
the frontrunners deep pockets can still get their message across in
YouTube videos.
In addition to saving the money, Payne pointed out the campaigns
“don’t need to go through a media consultant.” He said the campaign
ads “can be done by anybody,” which is YouTube’s purpose. Its slogan
is “Broadcast Yourself.”
It is a “tremendous change,” Payne said. “New media offers candidates
the ability to go directly to people.”
And the people to go directly to other people.
One YouTube user has posted a video
with pictures of Sen. Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail along
with an original song “Hillary Clinton for President.” Another video
supporting Rudy
Giuliani
is filled with clips of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
And Republican candidate Mike Huckabee has the support YouTube user
who shot
video
sitting in what appears to be his car.
Payne said he sees no downside to the online ads. “Most of the
candidates just want to get noticed,” he said. Once something is
online, it “generates a buzz.”
But some homemade ads are fiction, and they may shape images of the
candidates in some viewers’ minds that are beyond the candidates’
control.
One much-discussed video is Obama Girl. The
video was created by YouTube user ‘barelypolitical,’
who promised “new videos every week making politics sexy again!” The
ad caused a stir and laughter when it came out. But it also raised
some concern. In an article in The New York Times, Matt Bai wrote:
“Fairly or not, that video probably had more to do with shaping
Obama’s complicated public image—young and exciting but maybe a bit
shallow—than any Internet appeal devised by the candidate’s own ads.”
Bai added that the surge of unofficial Internet campaign ads is “a
fundamental shift in the once static relationship between producer and
consumer. It (the Internet) is by nature a participatory medium, in
which customers demand a more personal stake in the products they
consume.”
That, apparently, includes politicians. Because it didn’t take long
for McCain
Mama
and Giuliani
Girl
to compete. Barelypolitical’s sequel to Obama Girl was Obama Girl vs.
Giuliani Girl
, a video of scantily-clad young women extolling the
virtues of their respective candidates.
Bai also pointed out candidates have no control when it comes to the
posting of the unofficial ads. “Whichever candidates get their
parties’ nominations next year, they will probably try valiantly to
insulate their campaigns from the kind of Internet entrepreneurs and
amateur videographers who would distract voters from their
predetermined message,” Bai said.
Payne, however, said the unofficial ads have an upside. He said they
are particularly vital to “second tier candidates to help them get air
time.” And beyond the cellar-dwellers of the campaign, it helps all
the candidates to “use popular media to portray their image.”
Mundorf believes there are pros and cons to unofficial campaign ads.
“If it is a meaningful and supportive ad it might be more effective,”
he noted, “because it may cut through the clutter of professional
campaign ads and reaches people who don’t watch mainstream TV and
cannot be reached by other mainstream media.” Unofficial campaign ads
tend to target the non-mainstream voter anyway, so the informality of
them helps their message, he said.
The downside, Mundorf says, is the type of attention the unofficial
ads can garner. “These unofficial ads may draw attention to aspects of
a particular candidate or his/her campaign that campaign managers
would prefer to downplay,” Mundorf said.
For example, Hillary
Clinton and her laugh
, Mitt Romney and his
flip-flopping on the issues
, and Republicans
and family values
, are just a few of the unofficial ads that have
drawn unwanted attention to a campaign.
To Payne, the YouTube ads fit “the Jon Stewart-Steven Colbert approach
to political communication,” attracting an audience that is often
turned off by traditional media. A recent
survey
released this year by the Pew Center for People and the
Press has found that the Comedy Central audience of Jon
Stewart/Stephen Colbert has the highest knowledge of news.
Payne predicts that YouTube’s influence will continue to grow.
“YouTube will be like the Internet…the idea that you’ve got all the
candidates online…shows that it can reach independents and young
people,” Payne said. Mundorf predicts YouTube could even expand its
media base: “It may combine with other Web2.0 media, such as blogs and
podcasts which could lead to a tremendous network of citizens checking
facts, setting the agenda, and distributing information which is not
captured by the mainstream media.”
There are signs these homespun campaign ads are singlehandedly
changing campaign protocol. All the candidates have their own YouTube
accounts — and all pay attention to rivals and the clips that they
post.