Political capital is running on empty. Constituent anger is boiling, and voter backlash is almost guaranteed this November. To ease some of that tension between candidates and voters, some mid-term campaigns are starting to change their typical strategy of mudslinging attack ads, with bold negative claims and a deep voice narrator bashing opponents. Instead, in the era of YouTube, campaigns are creating Internet memes and takeoffs of popular brands to capture a piece of their popularity.
Today, for example, Democratic congressional candidate Surya Yalamanchili ran his first TV spot: a blatant rip-off of Apple’s iPad commercials. In the ad, a poorly-photoshopped iPad lists off the record of his opponent, Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt. “It couldn’t look like a standard political ad,” Yalamanchili, the former marketing director of LinkedIn, told Politico. “They’re awful, they’re so boring, they’re so negative.”
Does the music sound familiar?
In Vermont, Senate candidate Dan Freilich targeted his opponent through the lens of an incredibly popular brand spokesman: the Old Spice guy. “Look at your Senator–now back at me! Sadly, he isn’t me,” Freilich quips. It’s no wonder the candidate would want to capture the viral power of Old Spice’s campaign: Freilich’s ad soon went viral, too, racking up more than 100,000 views.
His opponent, incumbent Patrick Leahy, has less than 75,000 views–for all his YouTube videos combined. And Freilich isn’t the only one to parody the Old Spice guy. Congressional hopeful Jerry Labriola of Connecticut and Senate candidate Joe Miller of Alaska both played off the riff too.
Capitalizing on Internet memes has become common theme as well. The week following JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater’s inspiring exit, the Republican National Committee quickly turned out a related video, which soon had received close to 300,000 views. The Week called the ad “Pulling a Steven Slater.”
This isn’t the first election of the YouTube age. Back in 2008, we saw campaigns boosted from innovative YouTube clips taking advantage from re-purposed brand ads and Internet memes, from an Obama video mimicking Apple’s famous 1984 ad (“Vote Different”) to a Mike Huckabee ad touting Chuck Norris’ endorsement (“There’s no chin behind Chuck Norris’ beard, only another fist”), both of which received millions of views.
The point is that politicians and campaigns are discovering how typical campaign ads boasting about one’s record and attacking another’s are no longer viable in the digital realm. Online, candidates must compete with dogs riding on skateboards and Justin Bieber. But they’re learning, and as we head into November, we’ll see whether going viral has become akin to earning votes.