Is YouTube the Future of Campaign Videos?




  • October 8, 2015

    Videos have long been among the most feared tools in the political campaigner’s arsenal, more often credited with building or destroying candidates’ reputations than any other single element. Infamous examples include U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Daisy Girl” ad in the 1964 election. In the clip, a small girl plays peacefully with a flower until a mechanized voice cuts in over the idyllic scene, counting down to zero as the camera zooms out to the terrifying footage of a nuclear blast. The message of the clip, aired after Johnson’s rival Barry Goldwater declared that he would consider using nuclear weapons in Vietnam, is brutally clear: vote LBJ or risk the lives of your children.


    Also in U.S. election history, a particularly rich field for political videos, the National Security PAC, which unofficially supported George H. W. Bush’s campaign against Michael Dukakis, ran the “Willie Horton” ad in 1988, which focused on the two candidates’ positions on crime. Noting that Dukakis supported a prison furlough programme, which allowed convicted felons to exit prison for a weekend if they exhibited good behaviour, the video showed a mug shot of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who broke into a Maryland couple’s home, killing a man and repeatedly raping his wife, while on a weekend pass from prison. The ad, which has since been accused of “race-baiting”, was ruthlessly effective, as George Bush Sr. became the 43rd President of the United States shortly afterwards.


    Not all campaign videos are necessarily negative. One of the most effective videos released was Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” video, aired during the 1984 presidential campaign. Showing bright images of prosperous American families working, getting married, moving forward with their lives, the ad effectively captured the values and aspirations of millions of voters.


    If the effectiveness of political videos is rarely in doubt, however, most candidates are severely limited in how they can use this tool for financial reasons. Videos have historically been both expensive to produce and to air on television, and little of this has changed in recent years. While video production costs have gotten cheaper, the cost of airing television ads has only increased, due largely to the unprecedented amount of cash currently injected into politics (most notably in the U.S.). It is estimated that in the forthcoming 2016 presidential campaign in the United States, candidates will spend a whopping $ 4.4 billion on television ads.


    As it does elsewhere though, the Internet is disrupting how the public consumes political videos, to the great frustration of the television oligarchy.


    The phenomenon of viral online videos has completely changed political media paradigms and gaining ‘virality’ now represents the ultimate goal of many campaigners. This for the simple reason that an incredible amount of voters are now reached online and that, once a video goes viral, it will be covered by off-line media as well, such as television and newspapers, increasing the clip’s influence exponentially.


    A modern example of this can be seen in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Bibi Sitter” ad, which was released on Facebook and YouTube during the 2015 elections. In the comedic sketch, Netanyahu plays the babysitter who shows up on the doorstep of a couple about to leave for the night. When asked how a Prime Minister can spare several hours to look after the couple’s children, the Bibi-sitter replies that it is either him or the other prime ministerial candidates, all of whom the couple vehemently protest. While the plot is absurdist, the central message hits home: who do Israelis want guarding their children?


    Another advantage of online ads is their flexibility; their ability to be utilized outside of conventional campaigns and in strict regulatory environments, as is the case in most of Europe. As Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party in the United Kingdom, for example, the Conservative party released an attack video, an uncommon occurrence in the traditionally milder British campaigning environment, on YouTube, challenging Corbyn’s foreign policy positions and past acquaintances.


    In what must be first, political videos are currently being used to get an individual off the EU sanctions list, wrote up after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. As revealed in the October 6th edition of Politico Europe’s Playbook, Ukraine’s former Taxation Minister Oleksandr Klymenko, who has been exiled to Russia ever since a new government took control in Kiev, has released a series of funny, albeit bizarre, videos outlining the injustice of his current position and a pointed critique of contemporary Ukrainian revenge politics. The latest video, entitled “Revolving Doors”, expresses the impenetrability of the Brussels bubble and the unaccountability of EU institutions so well that it could be picked by the likes of Nigel Farage and used in a future ‘Brexit’ campaign.


    There is little doubt the Internet will continue to revolutionise the way political videos are used, while it has so far made no dent in the money going to TV ads, suggesting that online videos are seen mostly as a complementary campaigning tool, to be tacked on to more traditional efforts. What is more clear is that the budding presence of online videos means that political campaigns will be as explosive and entertaining as ever.

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