Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Problem with YouTube

When it comes to political communication the advent of YouTube, and other video-sharing websites, has been a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, YouTube allows both political campaigns and advocacy groups to inexpensively and quickly get their messages out to a potentially wide audience.

In other words, TV is no longer the only game in town as a communication medium for videos.

Now you can upload a political ad to a website and hope it generates enough buzz to go “viral.”

Unfortunately, however, the eagerness to create such viral campaigns has also helped to undermine the overall effectiveness of some political messaging.

What do I mean?

Well, instead of crafting ads to sway public opinion, political consultants and ad people are now producing spots that seemed designed solely to generate website “clicks”.

In short, getting a political point across is increasingly taking a backseat to creating spots which are sometimes funny, sometimes outlandish, or sometimes bizarre.

I saw this phenomenon first-hand last year while working in  New Hampshire as a consultant in a Republican primary race for a US Senate nomination.

 One of our opponents, a businessman named Jim Bender, came up with video spot called “Yum Yum.”

It featured an actor in an Uncle Sam costume greedily devouring cakes shaped like banks, cars and college diplomas. The more he ate, the more bloated Uncle Sam got.

The spot was certainly amusing and it generated a lot of good media coverage. One journalist gave it an “A” for creativity; a political newspaper called it a “must see” ad and it was featured on MSNBC.

So the Yum Yum ad generated media buzz and went viral, all the things you want a YouTube video to do.

But despite all that good stuff, the ad didn’t work where it really mattered; it didn’t help Bender win support.

Before the ads starting running he was mired in last place in the polls and that’s where he stayed right up to Election Day.

Yes his ad was entertaining, but it didn’t really give people a reason to think Bender would be an effective  US Senator.

Hence it was a creative success, but a political failure.

Meanwhile, here in  Canada the National Citizens Coalition, a conservative advocacy group, ran a similarly entertaining ad during the last federal election.

The NCC spot featured photos of the then three opposition leaders – Michael Ignatieff, Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton -- superimposed on the bodies of the Three Stooges.

As the “Stooges” in the ad hit, bashed and poked each other, viewers were warned against “socialist” plans.

“Don’t be a stooge,” says the ad at the end “vote against socialism.”

Since the New Democrats enjoyed their most successful election in history, it seems the NCC’s video appeal to stop socialism wasn’t all that effective.

And that’s not surprising. The creators of the ad were so focused on creating a funny, imaginative ad, it seems they neglected to put any thought into their actual political message.

How does Moe bonking Curly on the head with a wrench cause Canadians to fear socialism?

Yet for the NCC that probably didn’t matter. All that mattered was amassing a large number of YouTube hits so they could brag about it to their members.

Now don’t get me wrong.

It’s perfectly fine to make political ads entertaining and humorous.

However, the humor must complement the overall strategic message you are trying to get across.

At the end of the day, after all, the goal isn’t just to make people laugh, it’s to win votes for your candidate or to win converts to your cause.

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