March 16, 2007 at 7:00 AM ET
The nuclear mushroom cloud reflected in Daisy's eyes during the 1964 campaign. The revolving doors, with men casually walking in and out of prison in 1988. Enduring images from political campaigns are sometimes credited with changing the course of an election.
Some political consultants believe each campaign produces such a video moment. But this time around, what if the image isn't produced by either campaign?
Do-it-yourself political advertisements made by amateurs are now flooding the Internet thanks to cheap digital video production equipment and free video sharing sites like YouTube. And last week, the first genuinely viral video of the 2008 campaign made the rounds: Its target was Hillary Clinton.
The one-minute spot -- posted earlier this month, it's already been seen by 170,000 viewers -- is a rip-off of Apple's famous Orwellian 1984 Macintosh commercial. But instead of showing Big Brother addressing the crowd, it places Clinton in the role of the establishment. It ends with the simple message, "Vote Different," echoing Apple's "Think Different" mantra, then promotes rival Barack Obama's Web site.
An Obama spokesman said the senator's presidential campaign had nothing to do with the ad.
So far, little is known about the ad's creator. Messages left for the person who posted the ad on YouTube, who goes by the name "ParkRidge," were not returned. Joshua Marshall, among the first to take note of the ad in on his Talking Points Memo blog, said he was assured by someone who knew the ad's creators that it was an independent effort before he linked to the video.
The Clinton 1984 ad is a "mash-up," or mixing of multiple videos into one piece. Amateur political mash-ups aren't new, and neither is their creators' taste for irony. Ned Lamont, who gave Sen. Joe Lieberman a run for his money in last year's Connecticut Senate race, was spoofed by a mash-up that mixed a real campaign ad showing a crowd of eager volunteers gathering outside the candidate's house with the jingle from the Mentos mints advertising campaign, poking fun at the toothy smiles from Lamont's supporters.
Another homemade ad married the now-infamous video of John Edwards primping before a television interview with the song "I Feel Pretty" from "West Side Story."
Homemade ads made their public debut in the last presidential election, when MoveOn.org sponsored a do-it-yourself contest. The winner, Child's Play, was a somber ad featuring children working at low-paying jobs that called attention to federal deficit spending.
Funny, but are they effective?
Homemade ads were part of the discussion Thursday at a conference for geek political practitioners at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The keynote speaker of the "Politics Online 2007" gathering was a Google executive, an obvious sign that the union between campaigning and technology will be a strong one during the upcoming campaign.
In his address, Elliot Schrage, Google's vice president of global communications, showed the Edwards "I Feel Pretty" video and predicted that the firm's YouTube site will be a hot spot for campaigning leading up to the November 2008 election.
"Parodies can be as informative as the original video … and we're committed to making them available," he said.
But while the homemade ads are good for laughs, campaign professionals are wondering whether they could actually influence election results.
Bill Hillsman, who made the "real" Ned Lamont ad that was parodied in the mash-up isn't so sure. "I've seen a lot of things that are funny, but it's hard to say what's effective," he said, admitting he got a kick out of the Mentos mash-up. "These people don't necessarily know who they are trying to talk to. They are generally talking to people in their own age group and of their own mind-set. In other words, people who ... are already in the choir."
Cameras, cameras everywhere
But amateur video is sure to have some impact on campaigns, said Julie Germany, deputy director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University.
In a sense, it already has, she said, citing Sen. George Allen's failed re-election bid in November after he was filmed describing an audience member as "macaca" during a campaign stop. It wasn't strictly speaking a homemade advertisement -- the video was shot by a campaign worker for opponent James Webb -- but it showed the power a single, grainy video shot with a cell phone and made available on the Web can play in a campaign, she said.
With the seemingly endless number of cell phone cameras following each candidate's every move, someone is sure to say something questionable before November 2008. Even in an amateur's hands, video of that moment could make for a powerful ad, Germany said.
In such a wired world, the distinction between professional and amateur ads and incriminating video snippets is increasingly becoming irrelevant, Hillsman said. "There are enough cameras out there that the image tagged to a candidate could come from anywhere," he said. "People don't distinguish between campaign-made ads on YouTube or homemade ads or a blogger following a candidate with a camera."
There is a troubling aspect to the blurring of that line, however. The Federal Election Commission regulates formal political advertisements, but has so far declined to regulate blogs or homemade ads. Germany thinks some campaigns might take advantage of that loophole in election regulations. For example, she said, a campaign donor could give an amateur video-creator free editing equipment to create ads targeting an opponent or campaigns could use bloggers or YouTube to post negative advertisements anonymously.
"We haven't seen it yet, but we anticipate that," she said.
Schrage, the Google official, said the lack of regulation wouldn't necessarily turn Web ads into a free-for-all, however. He stressed the Internet's "self-policing," qualities and suggested that misleading ads could quickly be beaten back by an army of fact-checking bloggers. And of course, candidates can quickly post their own responses on YouTube, as Mitt Romney did recently after a blogger dug up a video of the former Massachusetts governor suggesting in a 1994 debate that he supported abortion rights.
Such balancing acts might blunt the impact of homemade ads. But even if an amateur ad doesn't manage to tag a candidate like the nuclear bomb or revolving door ads of other campaigns, Germany thinks they will have a more-subtle impact during the 2008 election cycle by offering a creative outlet for fully engaged campaign volunteers.
"When was the last time you heard of someone doing something creative for a campaign?" she said, referring to mundane tasks like door-to-door canvassing or manning phone banks that campaign volunteers have traditionally been given. "(Now) people are getting involved outside the campaign sphere."
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