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The Daily Need

Beyond vérité

Presidential candidates are increasingly turning to documentary-style advertising this election season. But will voters be persuaded by these faux-reality videos?

Kevin Knoblock spent three days looking for a photograph of a Doberman Pinscher drowning in an icy pond or falling through a sheet of ice. The closest thing he could find was video footage of a Doberman Pinscher playing in the snow.

“Newt called me after he watched the documentary,” said Knoblock, the director and writer of the web biopic “Rebuilding the America We Love” about and commissioned by Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. “His first comment was, ‘How come you didn’t get the Doberman Pinscher part right?’ We laughed when I told him how impossible it was to find the right picture.”

Young Newt Gingrich, as seen in his campaign video featured at at

Knoblock dedicated a solid three minutes of the 16-minute video exploring Gingrich’s love for animals. “I wanted to do a get-to-know-the-candidate video,” said Knoblock, about how “softer” personal details are often sidelined by weightier topics on the campaign trail. “We wanted to load it up with emotions and feelings.”

On March 9, this video was released on YouTube, available to stream on the campaign website under the “Meet Newt” page. The premiere was announced to the virtual world through Google+ posts, tweets and Facebook likes. In a week, it received more than 14,000 views on YouTube.

“YouTube is free,” said Knoblock. “Traditionally all the money goes to buying television airtime but now campaigns have the option getting millions of eyeballs for free online.”

These digital biopics are becoming an affordable and effective way to deeply personalize the candidate beyond the platitudes of a stump speech, the quick handshakes and smiles at a rally, or the short sound bites on television. Now coupled with the platform of YouTube and promotion through Twitter and Facebook, the video hagiography — conceived, produced and marketed by the campaigns themselves — is finding its own place in the realm of campaign tactics this year.

“I’m little surprised that Romney and Santorum haven’t done a long bio film,” Knoblock said about the other Republican presidential contenders. But the Democratic incumbent isn’t far behind.

Earlier this month, the Obama campaign released their 17-minute biopic “The Road We’ve Traveled,” which recounts the trials and success of Obama in the past four years. Despite its YouTube provenance, it carries the imprimatur of Hollywood: directed by Academy-Award winner Davis Guggenheim, narrated by actor Tom Hanks, and promoted for weeks with digital fanfare and a 30-second trailer. So far, it has garnered more than a million hits.

As for whether these videos qualify as documentaries or are simply long-form commercials, longtime Democratic campaign consultant Joe Trippi says Americans know what they’re watching.

“People know the difference between something that’s clearly coming at them with an agenda in the documentary style versus a news documentary that’s showing both sides of an issue,” said Trippi.

Political science professor Rob Salmond, who studies the impact of social media on political campaigns, agrees that anyone who sits at their computer to watch 16 minutes is savvy enough to understand biased tone and context.

Not surprisingly, the soft-focus treatment is a hallmark of the genre. The Gingrich video underscored the candidate’s affection for animals but disregarded his personal history of multiple divorces and extramarital affairs. Obama’s video highlighted the killing of Osama Bin Laden and healthcare reform, but shied away from the high unemployment rate and rising gas prices.

“There’s a long history of ‘who is this guy I’m voting for?’ campaign film, but the new idea is how campaigns are getting that same information to people differently today,” said Salmond, who published a Brookings Institute report this month comparing YouTube campaigning to traditional television advertising.

Until very recently, only a handful of campaigns ventured into the candidate biography genre — buying time on television is an expensive business. Salmond says Obama’s 2008 documentary “American Stories, American Solutions,” which focused on the personal stories of Americans rather than Obama himself, cost an estimated $4 to $5 million for 30 minutes of national airtime. This time around, according to FEC records, the Obama campaign paid around $345,000 for the production of the recent documentary. Of course, “airtime” on the Internet is free.

Though the web biopic may be cheaper, Trippi doesn’t expect it to level the financial playing field between campaigns. He still believes that the 30-second ad on television is still worth every pretty penny.

“Millions of Americans are not going to sit and watch a 17-minute video. They’ll tune it out if they have no interest. That’s the big limitation,” said Trippi. “But the 30-second spot is going to happen while you’re watching a football game or your favorite show…That’s why they work.”

Salmond prefers to put the web biopic in an entirely different category from the 30-second ad. He says they’re just different tools and believes longform web commercials are a natural win-win situation for campaigns: light on the wallet and heavy on the virtual returns from supporters.

“A person who spends half an hour watching a YouTube video is already prepared to vote for the candidate,” said Salmond. “These docs are intended to get them to go another step and volunteer or use it as an argument to convince their friends to vote, post it on social networking sites and eventually advance a candidate’s agenda.”

These videos may be just a segment of the larger digital campaign push to drum up the supporter base. The Romney campaign allows supporters to create fundraising pages that others can view and contribute. The Gingrich campaign created “twibbons” that supporters can add to their Twitter and Facebook profiles. And Santorum recently released the first of an 8-part miniseries of one minute videos called “Obamaville“; with the click of a mouse, the instantaneous gratification of being a supporter is broadcast to the digital world.

But Trippi thinks these digital efforts on the Republican part has been lackluster. He says that the Republicans in general haven’t even caught up to the momentum that the Obama campaign built in 2008. “It’s like an afterthought,” said Trippi about the Republican campaigns and their social media strategies. “They do it because they have to. It’s not like anyone on the Republican side is doing a good job. They’re being left in the dust.”

Salmond expects a lot more videos as the country heads into the general election, though he says the topics may branch out from candidate profiles to profiles of volunteers or specific policy positions. The Gingrich campaign is currently working on another video for a web release.

However, Trippi thinks it’s not enough just to produce these videos and throw it into the digital space.

“You need to be savvy,” said Trippi. “The key is to create an echo chamber where everyone else spreads the word for you. Your supporters are sending it around, raising money with it while the press is also reporting on it and creating buzz.”

However, the caveat of anything living on the digital sphere for free is that it can also get lost in the bottomless pit of the Internet. Trippi says a campaign needs the “prowess to make it catch fire.”

“You can make the greatest 20-minute video in the world, but what’s the point if it’s sitting online and no one ever sees it?”

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