John McCain v. Social Media: The People Win

Watch the two clips below and see if you agree: when the professional ad makers take on the distributed, collective intelligence of the internet, the ad guys risk losing. Here’s what I mean: McCain’s video folks are clearly very talented, in that they can craft an effective ad in a very short time. They have to — turnaround for a political spot in a fierce battle is less than a day if you want to answer your opponent in time to catch the media wave. But what they produce is still just a standard political ad, with the usual imagery, the usual music and the usual “I’m great and my opponent sucks” messaging.

But combine the ‘net with cheap cameras and easy video-editing software, and millions of people can produce video clips, most of which will of course stink. But with so many monkeys banging away on keyboards, something good is likely to emerge — and many of those monkeys are also video professionals with experience and skills in the medium. So let’s look at this week’s evidence and draw some conclusions:

The McCain version isn’t bad for a political ad — it’s put together well from a technical point of view (though with the sound off, you’d think it was an Obama spot), and its message was striking enough to attract plenty of attention. But the Paris Hilton response (created by Adam McKay) is sheer genius by comparison. It flat-out schools McCain, making him look like a fool — in part because it actually contains substance, unlike 99% of political television ads. As my friend Shola pointed out last night, part of its strength comes from the inversion of our expectations about Paris, since it presents HER as the substantive voice, the one with a real energy plan (forget that it’s one of those simple solutions that sounds great but would last about two seconds in the real world of politics).

Also note that the Paris response to McCain doesn’t need fancy video-editing or background music, since it has GOOD WRITING and a compelling subject (people can’t seem to get enough of images of Paris, would that we were all so Pretty). Above all, it’s fresh and it’s creative — it demands that you pay attention.

The lesson: political professionals need to realize that they don’t have a monopoly on political messaging — from T. Boone Pickens to to Ms. Hilton, average citizens can now go toe-to-toe with them and even win a few rounds. It helps to have Pickens’s millions to spread the word, but good creative and a good subject can combine with the world of blogs, social networks and free video hosting to get a piece in front of a massive audience. How many more people will see Paris Hilton’s response than McCain’s original video? By which I mean, how many more people will imbibe an anti-McCain message presented by a compelling host?

Adam McKay said that “McCain made one huge mistake: He drifted into the world of pop culture.” But ALL campaigns have drifted into a social media world as well, and political professionals had better come to terms with it. If they want their messages to be seen rather than skipped-over in Tivo, they’d better up their game — you’re not just competing with your opponent’s creative team, you’re competing with EVERYONE who can create content online. Up the revolution, baby! Now THAT’S hot.


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • Well, to say that Funny Or Die is an average citizen site is a stretch but not as much as saying Ms. Hilton is. Your point is valid given the viral nature of some videos and how well they can be received on the web and beyond, but this is just a bad example.

  • Well, but within the context of the political system they ARE average citizens — they haven’t run for office, they aren’t big donors that I’m aware of, and do we even know whether or not they vote? In traditional political/media terms, they don’t matter.

    But in the new world, they MATTER — in this case, they can outshine a candidate and present a message that millions will see. Of course it helps to have a talented producer and a famous subject, but the point is that there are A LOT of talented producers out there and a fair number of famous and/or hot people to focus a camera on. Who’d heard of ObamaGirl before she was seen millions of times? She had the hot but not the famous, but the former combined with good writing and editing to lead to the latter, at least for a while.

    Think of how many of these videos we’ve seen this cycle — 1984, Yes We Can and ObamaGirl are the three that pop to mind, but there have been hundreds or thousands of others. The cream will rise to the top of the bucket, for sure, but the bigger the bucket, the more cream you get.

  • Well, there you have a good example. ObamaGirl fits, but Hilton making a video with the help of Will Ferrell can be perceived as an extension of Hollywood inserting itself into politics (which I don’t view as a terrible thing, celebrity status does not exclude one from having and expressing an opinion). The thing is, Hilton and Funny or Die are able to make a larger impact faster because of their celebrity status, whereas Obama Girl, 1984, and Yes We Can needed to go viral for anyone to care.

    I agree with your point that there’s a new game in town and it’s we the people. The idea that a guy with a cheap Flip camera or even camera phone can make an impact in the discussion (Obama – bitter gun clingers; Clinton – put me up for nomination, voices to be heard) is very promising. It’s like a perpetual town hall where the public can now impact the conversation regularly and sometimes in a very large way.

  • I still want to drill into this a little bit…

    The Obama girl might be an example that bolsters your response about the McKay-Hilton ad being an ‘everyman’ production, but it doesn’t fit with having any real substance. In fact, as a Republican I feel it is my duty to note that the Obama Girl phenonmenon merely enhances Obama as Celebrity rather than Obama as Statesman.

    Furthermore, unlike the Obama Girl phenomenon, this Paris ad (and the countless thousands of less well produced ads) haven’t risen out of the cybermuck. The press continues to focus their reporting on what happens on television and what comes from the official campaigns.

    So here is a crazy hypothetical that hopefully frames what I am trying to say: If the Federalist Papers had been distributed via Facebook, would anyone have even noticed? Allegorically speaking, the Founding Fathers would have had to mount a T.Boone Pickens/Ross Perot style “We can do it” advertising campaign.

    Despite viral events, the Internet is still very much a ‘PULL’ oriented medium. To communicate with the undecideds and the uninterested (where the lion share of votes are) you need to push, push, push. The internet has a position within that market, but it is much smaller (and likely to remain so) than television and radio (though I do think it has eclipsed print advertising in terms of ROI).