Friday, June 15, 2007

"World Wild Web offers buzz but no control to candidates"

Chicago Tribune:
Young people can make a difference in politics, Sen. Barack Obama says in a new campaign video, by speaking up about "the things that are making you passionate."
Elsewhere on YouTube, a very scantily clad young woman is doing exactly that -- in an unauthorized music video about her "Crush on Obama" that features her pole-dancing in a subway car and wearing a pair of "Obama" shorts that barely contain her enthusiasm for politics.

Word of the new music video was spreading swiftly on the Internet Thursday, and, with more than 55,000 views after less than a day, it was on its way to becoming one of the site's most popular clips.

The music video, the launch gimmick of a new Web site,, put the Obama camp in an odd position. True, the woman in the music video is clearly declaring Obama "the best candidate," arguably a message they'd like to see going viral on the Web.

Trouble is, she's half-naked while lip-syncing Obama's praises and she's also warmly kissing his photograph, yet another reminder that candidates have less and less control of their images and messages when everybody has bandwidth.

Loss of control

To be sure, the campaigns are happy to use venues like YouTube as low-cost alternatives to expensive television ads and mailings. But when the barrier to entry is as low as the click of a mouse, there's no way for them to control where their images go or how they are used.

Just ask Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton, who watched in March as a video spread across the Web depicting her as an Orwellian tyrant in a reprise of the 1984 Apple Macintosh ad. Republican Sen. John McCain got his too, with a video in which he sang "Bomb Iran" to the tune of "Barbara Ann."

And while a video of former Democratic Sen. John Edwards perfecting his hair in a mirror was making the rounds, his latest talk about poverty got a little lost in the noise.

"This is definitely a sign of the emerging of the grass roots," said Democratic consultant Jenny Backus, who is not working for any of the presidential candidates. "Campaigns can't control their own narrative all of the time anymore."

In addition, such "volunteer" Internet videos are free of the strict standards that apply to political ads on radio and television. The Federal Election Commission in 2006 decided it would regulate only paid political ads on the World Wide Web, saying that "the vast majority of Internet communication" would be free from campaign finance regulation.

That leaves the Web as the hottest place for stealthy operations working outside the official campaign command.

In this case, some political strategists say, those within the age demographic who would typically pass along and seek out the "Crush on Obama" video are probably inclined to like it and not find it offensive.

And a generation raised on MTV is arguably less likely to respond to an old-school political ad than to one that looks more like a Pussycat Dolls video featuring Timbaland.

Ben Relles, 32, one of the music video's creators, said he's a big Obama fan, but that he and a friend put the piece together mainly for the pleasure of it.

He said the effort was not coordinated with the Obama campaign and that his intent is not just to sell merchandise.

"It's mostly for fun," he said, between appearances Thursday on MSNBC and Fox News.

Relles said the video cost about $2,000 to create.

"I admire the way Barack has used new media in this campaign," he said in a phone interview from Manhattan. "All of the candidates are getting savvy on how to take advantage of it."

Leah Kauffman, 21, the other creator and the voice on the soundtrack, said she is surprised by the attention the video is getting.

'The reality is, sex does sell'

"The reality is, sex does sell," Kauffman said. The dancer is a model, Amber Lee Ettinger.

Kauffman and Relles teamed up late last year on another racy video that became a YouTube hit, and they are promising other campaign videos through their Web site.

For voters under 30, said one Democratic media strategist, videos made by unpaid volunteers are the equivalent of the old-fashioned neighbor-to-neighbor recommendation over the back fence. And they're proliferating like viruses on the Web.

"Candidates are beginning to see that they don't control their message anymore," said Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. "They're still the biggest player. But now, anybody with a cell phone camera or some technical skills can become a producer of political commercials."

In this case, the Obama team wants it to be clear that it had nothing to do with the video, but they're not objecting to the product placement, either. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said campaign officials try to monitor what kinds of Obama gear any independent merchants may be peddling, but said they generally take a hands-off approach.

Obama's team is making its own YouTube play this week. A video featuring him talking into the camera for two minutes and asking for volunteers to send in recordings of their work was also one of the top-watched videos Thursday.

Some supporters are taking that exhortation more seriously than others.

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