Online Branding In The 2008 Presidential Race
The 2008 presidential race has been called the YouTube election and that is certainly hard to dispute. There have been numerous examples of YouTube videos playing a significant role in the race for the White House.
In each instance, the YouTube videos attempted to brand a candidate one way or another and to varying degrees of success.
The first instance of YouTube-like online branding of a politician in Minnesota, and, perhaps, nationally, occurred during Norm Coleman‘s 2002 campaign against the late Senator Paul Wellstone.
At the outset of Coleman’s challenge against Wellstone, a couple of young Minnesotans launched the now defunct BushBoy.com that featured a hilarious Flash animation depicting Coleman as George W. Bush‘s lapdog and, literally, hand puppet. The animation used actual clips of Coleman speeches and played on Coleman’s close relationship with the White House. I cannot, unfortunately, find the actual animation. The site was instantly popular. It worked so well because the piece exploited some essential truths of Coleman the politician: He was handpicked by Karl Rove to run against Wellstone and he had big monied supporters.
BushBoy.com was followed by JibJab during the 2004 presidential election with a Flash animation that lampooned both George W. Bush and John Kerry. Again, the satire was so effective because it absolutely nailed if not essential truths, then perceived truths of both candidates:
Prior to YouTube, you had to be pretty motivated and needed not just some technical expertise to create popular online political satire, but enough marketing savvy to build awareness. When YouTube launched in February 2005, it provided an easy way to publish satirical political videos and offered a centralized, ready-made audience for them.
Senator George Allen’s Macaca Moment
What’s more, YouTube ushered in the era of citizen generated media, offering a platform and an audience for raw video shot by individuals. During this presidential race, that fact played out most prominently when a worker for the James Webb senate campaign caught his opponent, Senator George Allen, using a racial slur when referring to the Webb volunteer.
Allen was considered a front-runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. The Webb campaign uploaded the video to YouTube and it soon became news, with television reports airing the video itself. The widespread exposure of that video branded Senator Allen as a racist. Subsequent reports of Allen using racial slurs and his awkward attempts at explaining the video simply solidified the perception that he was a racist. Allen lost his re-election bid and, as a result of the video, was no longer a viable presidential candidate.
Rudy Giuliani in Drag
It’s an understatement to say that Rudolph Giuliani faced an uphill climb in securing the conservative base of his party during his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Conservatives saw no difference between him and a liberal Democrat. Though Guiliani failed for a variety of reasons, it certainly didn’t help his cause when someone uploaded video of the former Mayor of New York in drag and flirting with Donald Trump. The video reinforced Giuliani’s brand as a liberal:
Big Mother Hillary
The Obama campaign’s mashup of the 1984 Apple Macintosh commercial was effective because for years Hillary Clinton has been pummeled (and branded) by her right wing critics as cold, distant, and a big government socialist:
This is the original Apple commercial:
Which, coming full circle, is based, of course, on George Orwell‘s novel about totalitarianism, 1984:
The Clinton’s Soprano’s Spoof
Riffing off the finale episode of the final season of the immensely popular HBO show The Sopranos, the Clinton campaign spoofed the finale with a lighthearted version of their own. This piece was fascinating because people tended to read into it what they wanted to see. Supporters of the Clintons saw it as a laudable attempt to show people Hillary’s lighter side. Clinton critics, on the other hand, thought it entirely appropriate that the Bill and Hillary would compare themselves to a crime family. In this case, branding was in the eye of the beholder:
This is the original ending scene from The Sopranos:
Pretty Boy John
The Edwards campaign had to be mortified when a clip of the candidate appeared on YouTube that showed him obsessing over his hair, reinforcing the perception of John Edwards as a pretty boy:
The negative branding from that video was so successful that the campaign felt obliged to address it with a self-effacing video of their own for the YouTube debates:
Mitt’s Many Faces
The rap against Mitt Romney has been that he never met a position he wouldn’t change, if it were politically expedient to do so. And if you had any doubts, YouTube was there to remind you that Romney once held the polar opposite positions he now holds:
I Got A Crush On My Candidate
Barack Obama has been the biggest beneficiary to date of online branding through YouTube. When Barely Political launched the Obama Girl video, the branding of Obama as a sexy candidate easily took hold because he is a very charismatic man. The video has only been a positive for the campaign:
With the phenomenal success of I Got A Crush On Obama, Barely Political followed up with Obama Girl vs. Giuliani Girl:
Too Hot For Hillary
The Me Too videos followed shortly after the Obama Girl made such a big splash but not always to the benefit of the candidate. Taryn Southern, for example, released Hott 4 Hill, containing a rather obvious lesbian theme:
The Huckabee Girl video mocks Republican candidate Mike Huckabee‘s belief in Creationism:
Yes They Can
Finally, Barack Obama again benefits from independent online branding with the Yes We Can music video featuring musicians and Hollywood stars singing along to an Obama speech. The video brands Obama as an inspiring, lyrical, poetic speaker. Again, the branding is effective because it’s true:
Who Needs Swift Boats?
Forget 527s, the new Swift Boat Veterans are going to be even more opaque than the shadowy groups of elections past. If you like anonymous, unaccountable attack ads, stay tuned to YouTube. We are entering a new era of political campaigns because now, with the ease of YouTube, digital cameras and editing software, one person with a clever idea and some skill now has the power to affect an election.