i-549c0c9481bd26662e2d227d4acb561a-YouTube political candidates.jpg
From time to time, I’ll give an overview of one broad MediaShift topic, annotated with online resources and plenty of tips. The idea is to help you understand the topic, learn the jargon, and take action. I’ve already covered blogging, citizen journalism, the digital divide and various other topics. This week I’ll look at presidential campaign videos.

What Are They?

Candidates running for the U.S. presidency in 2008 have made use of online resources more than ever. With the rise of online video and YouTube, candidates have started to upload formal and informal videos online, and potential voters have tried to engage them in video dialogues.

So far, the candidate videos have ranged from full speeches to short addresses straight to viewers. For instance, Republican candidate Mitt Romney has a special site called Mitt TV that has carefully crafted campaign videos, while his son, Tagg Romney, recorded a more relaxed video explaining why he and his brothers have launched a blog about their dad’s run for the presidency.

What’s probably most interesting about the trend toward online videos for presidential candidates is that they are being used for more than just one-way communication. Candidates are starting to solicit video questions from voters, and then answering them with videos of their own. The more informal videos give voters a glimpse into their lives that they might not find in scripted appearances at rallies or on TV talk shows.

Precedents

How did video become part of political campaigns? Back in the late ’50s, TV advertising and televised debates transformed politics by allowing nationwide audiences to see candidates in action beyond newsreels. But televised politics also brought sound bites and an emphasis on telegenic candidates, and with it the risk that style would be valued over substance.. (For an overview of the history of presidential campaign TV commercials, check out this excellent online exhibit, The Living Room Candidate.)

Blogs first came to prominence as organizing tools with the 2004 presidential election, and the group blog of the Howard Dean campaign. Dean was later hurt by the constant airing of the Dean scream video both online and on TV.

Later, during the 2006 Congressional elections, Senator George Allen (R-Va.) suffered from the macaca moment (see video below), when he called a volunteer of Indian descent from the rival Jim Webb campaign a “macaca,” while the volunteer caught the episode on video and uploaded it to YouTube.

Colin Delaney at e.politics described how the Webb campaign used that video to their advantage:

[The Webb campaign] chose to post the video on YouTube because it was free (simple enough). But before they tossed it out for the public to see, they’d already pitched the story to a Washington Post reporter, who wrote about it online on Monday. Only after the Post story appeared and the issue had been properly framed did the Webb folks send it to their supporter list and to friendly bloggers. The fact that the video was on YouTube made it particularly easy to distribute, since bloggers could insert it directly into their pages, but it was the campaign’s promotional work that spread the word.

But web video is not only an American political phenomenon. The French presidential election, slated for a first round of voting on Sunday, April 22, has been called the cyber-election because of the candidates’ extensive use of the Internet. Socialist Party candidate Segolene Royal even had a “macaca”-style mishap, when a secret video showed her telling other party members that teachers should be working 35 hours per week rather than the 17 hours they currently work. The French NetPolitique blog explained the emphasis on Net video in the election:

In a country where it is strictly prohibited to buy air time to broadcast political ads, video sites like Dailymotion.com have literally rocked the traditional media environment. For months now, each camp has been testing and playing with the system, uploading hundreds of videos, ranging from sheer propaganda to subtlely edited footage of public speeches, notwithstanding the occasional artist showcasing his musical-cum-activist talent.

There’s also been innovation coming out of the UK, where Conservative Party leader David Cameron has been opening up his video-heavy Webcameron blog for people to ask him questions. He then answers the top-rated questions in his own informal video responses. That was one of the inspirations for a similar Q&A video exchange now being run on YouTube. Below is one of his recent video responses to questions posed on his blog.

Interactive Video Q&As

What sets apart online videos from TV ads or scripted TV appearances is the potential to use video as a more interactive medium, where voters can leave comments on videos or ask politicians important questions in their own videos. More importantly, the video exchange lets average people feel like their voice is being heard by candidates, and the candidates can gauge the pulse of the voters while having potentially more meaningful interactions than a quick handshake on the campaign trail.

One problem with this ideal is that not everyone has a videocamera and feels comfortable recording themselves asking a question of a presidential candidate. And when you consider the digital divide and tech skills required to upload videos, that cuts off another significant portion of the American public.

Still, what we’re seeing today with interactive video exchanges could represent a more open conversation between candidates and potential voters. In the U.S., these exchanges have only begun in the past few months. Georgetown University senior James Kotecki started a YouTube channel called EmergencyCheese, where he began critiquing the videos of presidential candidates. Kotecki got the attention of the Dennis Kucinich campaign with one such video review, prompting a video response from Kucinich himself on March 16.

“I think you’ve had some good suggestions and we’re already taking them into account with these close-ups,” Kucinich said to Kotecki in response to Kotecki’s critique on using a more personal camera angle for videos. The full Kucinich response video:

Meanwhile, the blog PrezVid, co-founded by BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis, started telling people to ask the presidential candidates questions via YouTube videos with the “prezconference” tag on them. On April 3, the effort bore fruit with Joe Biden answered prominent blogger JD Lasica’s question about what candidates would ask the American people to sacrifice. Biden’s video was informal and to the point, asking people to conserve energy usage.

Biden also took the video dialogues one step further, by putting his own video takes on issues head-to-head against videos from other candidates — even linking to other candidates’ sites.

Inspired by the PrezConference efforts, YouTube has started its own interactive Q&A with the presidential candidates. Each candidate will get to put a question to voters, who then have a week to give their video replies (as well as text comments). Then the candidate will go over the replies and give their own response. The first candidate to pose a question to voters was Mitt Romney, who asked what people thought was the greatest challenge for America right now. So far, there are 66 video replies and 1,255 comments.

Time will tell whether candidates and their advisers will actually roll up their sleeves and do the hard work of sifting through all that feedback and giving thoughtful responses to them. There have been plenty of other venues for candidate Q&As with voters, including the vaunted town hall meeting, but in many cases, they end up being over-produced affairs with little spontaneity. It’s hard to say how video Q&As will fit into that history, and whether they will retain their folksy charm.

User-Generated Ads

One of the more eye-opening aspects of presidential candidate videos has been the way supporters have created their own buzzworthy video ads online. Most prominent so far is Vote Different, a mash-up of the 1984 Macintosh computer commercial and a Hillary Clinton video — casting Clinton in the role of Big Brother. The video spawned many responses, including this less polished reversal= with Barack Obama in the role of Big Brother. You can watch the entire “Vote Different” ad here:

At first, there was a mystery surrounding the maker of the Vote Different video, whose handle on YouTube was ParkRidge47. Eventually, he revealed himself as Phil de Vellis, who worked at Blue State Digital, a technology provider for several presidential campaigns, including Obama’s. de Vellis resigned from his job, but was proud of the work he did with the video, which has garnered more than 3 million views on YouTube — more than any other presidential video there by far.

Here’s part of his explanation of how things have changed:

I made the ‘Vote Different’ ad because I wanted to express my feelings about the Democratic primary, and because I wanted to show that an individual citizen can affect the process. There are thousands of other people who could have made this ad, and I guarantee that more ads like it—by people of all political persuasions—will follow.

This shows that the future of American politics rests in the hands of ordinary citizens. The campaigns had no idea who made it — not the Obama campaign, not the Clinton campaign, nor any other campaign. I made the ad on a Sunday afternoon in my apartment using my personal equipment (a Mac and some software), uploaded it to YouTube, and sent links around to blogs…This ad was not the first citizen ad, and it will not be the last. The game has changed.

That’s certainly true, when someone with home equipment can produce an ad that catches the public’s imagination and causes the campaigns to take notice and react. There are many precedents for user-generated political ads, with MoveOn’s Bush in 30 Seconds contest proving to be the most popular. The progressive group asked people to submit political ads about Bush in December 2003, having people vote on the winning ad, which aired in January 2004. People submitted more than 1,000 ads, which were rated 2.9 million times. [See UPDATE below for more on this contest.]

Video Sites and Resources

Here are more websites, blogs and articles about the presidential video phenomenon so you can learn more:

Candidate Video Sites

Official Candidate Sites

John McCain Channel on Veoh

Hillary Clinton’s HillCasts

Barack Obama’s Brightcove Channel

Mitt Romney’s Mitt TV

Tom Tancredo solicits video questions

Rudy Giuliani’s YouTube channel

John Edwards video

Ron Paul Channel on Veoh

Blogs and Independent Sites

Capitol Hill Broadcasting Network

EmergencyCheese YouTube channel

MySpace Impact

National Journal’s Tech Daily Dose

PrezVid

TechPresident

YouTube’s YouChoose ’08

4President.us

Articles and Blog Posts

Web spurs revolution in race for president in the Orlando Sentinel

Candidates’ new soapbox for 2008: social networking, video Web sites on Copley News Service

Candidates Try Web Video, And the Reviews Are Mixed in the Washington Post

MySpace Nudges Users into Politics in the New York Post

Political Candidates Have Invaded the Web And Tamed the Blogs in the Wall Street Journal

The Wisdom of the Crowd Hits the ’08 Campaign Trail at Huffington Post

The YouTube Campaign at BuzzMachine

Who’s on YouTube? at TechPresident

Presidential candidates compete for friends online on Columbia News Service

As this is a trend in an early phase, I’ll be coming back to this post to update it throughout the presidential campaign. Please send along other good examples of presidential videos —- either in the U.S. or elsewhere — and I’ll update this post with any missing elements.

UPDATE: Blogger and GOP consultant Bill Hobbs says that I left a few facts out of my description of the “Bush in 30 Seconds” contest by MoveOn. He notes that there was a big controversy over ads that portrayed Bush as Hitler, causing the group to pull the ads from the site. But more importantly, Hobbs says, “for all the ‘success’ of the ‘Bush in 30 Seconds’ project, it didn’t help MoveOn achieve its goal: helping defeat the re-election of President Bush.”

More broadly, Hobbs thinks that presidential campaigns should be worried about making mistakes that are caught on camera, and keep in mind that user-generated ads can backfire in big ways. Here’s his conclusion:

If I was a campaign adviser I’d be more worried about my candidate doing something that the opposition sees as YouTube fodder than I would be worried about the grassroots ads made about my candidate by supporters of rival candidates. As the MoveOn/Hitler episode and the Hillary/1984/Obama episodes showed, grassroots-generated attack ads are prone to generating blowback for the candidate the creator supports.

I think it’s too early to say whether the 1984 ad has had an effect one way or another on how people will vote, but it does show that these user-generated ads can have some effect on the tone and tenor of the overall campaign. Plus, these are still early days, and while the “Bush in 30 Seconds” campaign didn’t win the election for Kerry, that doesn’t mean another more effective user-generated ad or contest won’t help sway another election in the future — presidential or otherwise.

Related