NEW YORK (AP) – Given all that’s at stake in the 2008 presidential race, it’s a bit terrifying to realize that by one measure, a major role is being played by an aspiring model/actress/fashion designer/former beauty pageant contestant named Amber.
That’s Amber Lee Ettinger, aka Obama Girl, whose racy Web video “I Got A Crush On Obama” has gotten well over 2 million hits in the three weeks it’s been online, making it one of the most-watched political videos this season.
Some of us have gotten so used to our daily fix of Web videos, it’s hard to remember that back in 2004, when President Bush spoke of “the Internets,” there WAS no YouTube.
Three years later, people are calling this the “YouTube Election” – in which anyone with a minicam or even a mere cell phone can conceivably impact the outcome. “Some of the best, the most innovative stuff is gonna come from some voter out there, who changes the entire complexion of the race,” says Joe Trippi, former campaign manager for Howard Dean in 2004, now adviser to the John Edwards campaign.
And that’s a scary thing for campaigns, which are used to controlling their own message, enforcing it from the top down. On the new playing field, “you lose the ability to manage what you want to say,” says Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, a former Clinton White House staffer.
So what’s a campaign manager to do? Fight back, with all the technology available: MySpace and Facebook profiles, candidates’ own online communities, text-messaging networks. On Sen. Barack Obama’s site, you can download ringtones with snippets of his speeches set to a rock or hip-hop motif.
But Web video is the big battlefield. Here’s a brief guide to some must-see viewing – some candidate-approved, and some candidate-definitely-did-NOT-approve:
Web video has given one candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, a crucial chance to try to warm up her image. “Let’s chat,” she urged voters when she opened her campaign online. She’s made fun of her questionable singing skills, since others were doing so anyway. And in her “Sopranos” spoof, her campaign sought to catch the wave of a pop-culture phenomenon, mimicking that famous diner ending (some would say non-ending) and even scoring a cameo from the character Johnny Sack.
No matter that the video had nothing to do with any issues. Half a million people viewed it on the Clinton site the first day, another half million the next day, and so many on YouTube and other sites that the campaign estimates several million have now watched it. Not to mention the inevitable spoofs that this spoof has spawned.
“The word ‘viral’ is overused, but here it’s apt,” says Peter Daou, Internet director for the Clinton campaign. “We’re trying to use online video in all different ways. This is new for all of us.” Some of those ways: HillCasts, Hillary TV and the HillCam, with constant video of the candidate traveling across Iowa this week.
The “Sopranos” video was aimed at showing Clinton has a sense of humor. She probably didn’t find it so humorous when the Orwellian “Hillary 1984” video came out earlier this year, a mashup of a classic Apple ad, depicting Clinton as a Big Brother-type figure. The ad, produced by a renegade employee of a company hired to design Obama’s Web site, has now been seen by a whopping 4 million or so on YouTube.
GOING LOW-TECH: When the Edwards campaign was doing a fundraising push ahead of the candidate’s 54th birthday this month, they offered his mother’s pecan pie recipe to donors. Trippi and deputy campaign manager Jonathan Prince decided to try the recipe. They baked it, burned it, and uploaded their amateur video – with a cameo from Elizabeth Edwards seeking donations – to YouTube. “We brought in close to $300,000,” says Trippi. “All we spent was a couple of bucks for the milk and eggs.”
On a more serious note, the campaign was able to quickly capitalize on a recent talk-show confrontation between Mrs. Edwards and conservative author Ann Coulter, immediately posting the video and using it in a new fundraising push.
OOPS: Here’s a low-tech video Edwards would rather forget. Most if not all people fix their hair before going on TV – but this old footage shows him primping for two minutes, and is deviously set to “I Feel Pretty” from “West Side Story.” Combined with stories about expensive haircuts, for some it likely plays into characterizations of Edwards as the “Breck” candidate.
OOPS AGAIN: GOP hopeful John McCain channeled his inner Beach Boy when, asked at a gathering in South Carolina about possible military action against Iran, he replied with a takeoff on the 1965 hit “Barbara Ann”: “Bomb, Bomb Iran…”
Criticized after the amateur video surfaced, McCain responded: “Lighten up and get a life.” The director of his e-campaign, Christian Ferry, says spontaneity is one of the Arizona senator’s hallmarks, and that he’ll continue to respond in an unscripted manner – and to produce his own sometimes quirky content. “Put on your shades and hop on board,” McCain’s announcement video urges viewers. Supporters are invited to join the McCain Space community on his Web site.
IT WAS FUNNY AT THE TIME: New York mayors love to display their comic skills at the annual Inner Circle dinner. In 2000, Rudy Giuliani outdid himself, appearing in full drag in a taped skit, even letting himself be kissed on the (heavily padded) chest by Donald Trump. Now that Giuliani’s running for the Republican nomination, YouTube users are circulating it with glee. Another amusing Web moment: Giuliani was speaking about abortion at a New Hampshire debate when a lightning strike briefly interfered with the sound system. The former mayor’s 43 videos on his YouTube channel, though, stick to the serious stuff.
THAT GIRL: She frolics in a bikini, red underwear or a tight Obama T-shirt, lip-synching words like “You’re into border security – let’s break this border between you and me.” Though salacious, the Obama Girl video is unlikely to hurt the candidate and might help: “It contributes to the image of him being the hip candidate, the fresh face,” says Daniel Kurtzman, editor of About.com’s political humor Web site.
To Kurtzman, the video captures an essential truth about the medium: With a less attractive model and a slightly worse song, and “maybe 10 people would have seen it.”
Obama’s campaign is trying more G-rated ways of getting attention – like text messaging and its new ringtone feature. “It’s just another way that people can feel connected to the campaign,” says spokeswoman Jen Psaki. (Jon Stewart has a different take: “Finally, a way for political candidates to annoy you when you’re at a restaurant or a movie theater!” he quipped on his “Daily Show.”)
Obama, whose fundraising success has wowed observers, is also getting more Internet buzz than his rivals. Nielsen added up mentions in Web logs and discussion groups and found Obama had nearly 46 percent of Democratic chatter compared to Clinton’s 32 percent. (Overall, Democrats were ahead of Republicans.) And it seems the Obama-produced videos have been hooking viewers: visitors to his site stay an average of six minutes, 21 seconds.
SELF-DEPRECATING: Trying to be funny can be a risky business for a candidate, who needs to maintain a sense of gravitas as well. But New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has earned points from humorists – and a few points in the polls – with his clever, self-deprecating “job interview” ads spotlighting his long resume.
AW, SHUCKS: For those desiring a romantic recap of how Republican candidate Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, got together, turn to “Mitt TV,” his own video trove on his Web site. Under the “Fun” channel, the former Massachusetts governor and his wife tell the Fox host Greta Van Susteren how they met as children (he was a Cub scout, she was riding a horse).
JUST WEIRD: OK, we’ll bite: Why is Democrat Mike Gravel staring at us like that? A bizarre YouTube clip shows the former Alaska senator staring silently into the camera for more than a minute, then throwing a large rock into a pond and walking away.
Another one has him building a fire, which we stare at for seven minutes. That prompted one YouTube user to quip that Gravel’s “state of the union address would be an hour of silence, followed by him taking off his right shoe.”
On the Net:
Obama Girl: http://www.youtube.com/watch?vwKsoXHYICqU
Hillary 1984: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v6h3G-lMZxjo
“I Feel Pretty”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v2AE847UXu3Q
“Bomb Iran”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?vhAzBxFaio1I
Giuliani in drag: http://wwww.youtube.com/watch?v4IrE6FMpai8
Clinton Sopranos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?vBfkRjvAYuOc
Bill Richardson job interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?vtjOuL5qwNIc
Mike Gravel throws a rock: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v0rZdAB4V-j8
John Edwards pecan pie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?vDGhdSX-I2ow
Mitt TV: http://www.mittromney.com