Campaign '08 Online: The Not-So-New Media

New media is threatening to upend TV's stranglehold on how U.S. presidential candidates get their messages out to the people. YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, blogs, and the candidates' own websites have added a complicated dimension to the 2008 race. Are these digital additions clouding or clarifying what candidates want to say? I spoke with Matt Rosenberg, Group Director of Media and Entertainment at Organic, one of the world's top interactive advertising agencies, in OffTheBus's quest to find out.

Who will have the next "Obama Girl"? Is any candidate truly running an open, honest and authentic campaign? Would U.S. voters rather elect someone who will entertain us, or run the country effectively? The next eleven months, in the real world and cyberspace, promise an evolving pre-election show unlike any previously seen.

OffTheBus: What are you seeing on candidates' websites?

Matt Rosenberg (MR): What is amazing to me is that all candidates are highlighting on their sites their repurposed television ads, and there's something fundamentally old school about taking your TV ads and putting them online. Most marketers who do that do not take advantage of the medium itself because television ads are made for television, and the really interesting thing here is that when you're talking about politics, people sort of expect that television advertising is not authentic, is a pack of lies, or at least highly spun, selective information. And it's good for broad positioning, but nobody ever expects to really get to know the candidates' feelings about an issue from a television ad.

But [with] the web, what cornered the realm online is authenticity. You can't be inauthentic online. You're going to get nailed for it, and the medium itself just discourages it. The fact that a lot of the candidates are using repurposed TV spots as the way that they are positioning themselves to the web audience is a missed opportunity to communicate really in a more web-friendly way.

OffTheBus: Some candidates have created humorous videos and have posted them on YouTube. These comedy shorts are getting a lot of traffic, but what overall affect do they have on a presidential candidacy?

MR: The idea of viral video depends on humor, whether its Bill Richardson and his fake job interview or a guy getting hit in the face with a cat.

OffTheBus: Right.

MR: So it's a good strategy to use humor, but looking at a lot of the YouTube stuff that's up there for a lot of these candidates, they tend not to be a hilariously funny group of people. The candidates are looking for a level of seriousness and dignity that they need to show in order to look presidential. That's really minimally compatible with being a yukster.

OffTheBus: That relates to another question I had. Do you think the popularity on YouTube will translate into popularity among voters? Will this YouTube buzz extend into the voting booths?

MR: We don't elect a comedian in chief. If George Bush got elected because he's the guy you wanted to have a beer with more than Al Gore, if that's still the world we're living in, then sure, maybe it makes you think more fondly of one candidate over another. But I think in the current political environment, people care a lot more about what the next president is going to do than whether he's going to do it with a chuckle.

OffTheBus: Going back to this viral phenomenon, should every candidate have an "Obama Girl"? Now that Obama has done this, can anyone else take on something like this to create that YouTube buzz?

MR: You can't do exactly the same thing. But can a candidate do something that captures attention? Absolutely.

The power of YouTube, and the thing that is going to wind up being more valuable on it than YouTube as a platform, is the keeping-the-candidates-honest, the "gotch ya" moments. I know it's trite to talk about it at this point, but the "Macaca" moment, where a candidate is really unguarded and is exposed for good or ill in their unguarded moments.

It's very difficult to imagine an authentic viral moment of a candidate helping a little old lady across the street. So, generally speaking, it's going to be the negative moments that get the big viral video plays.

I don't think it [an "Obama Girl" example] represents the seriousness at which people look at candidates, but if you lack for name recognition, it could help you.

OffTheBus: Is there anybody out there who you feel has the best overall brand? Any standouts? Anyone whose message is all over the place?

MR: There is one thing that I found striking, and I say this without judging his candidacy, is that after going through all of the Democratic candidates' websites and seeing how packed with information they were, when I got to Rudy Giuliani's website, it looked like he had just used a really big font and wide margins to make an eight-page term paper look like a ten-page term paper.

I was actually surprised also that while all of the candidates have a navigation towards their positions on their key issues, they all have varying levels of detail to them. I was quite astonished at the lack of detail in Mitt Romney's positions, some of them two sentences long. Then you go to a Richardson or a Kucinich or a Biden or a Chris Dodd, particularly, where you are seeing very long detail relative to campaign literature, [in] positions on specific issues.

OffTheBus: What about the website design? There is a wide range of those who look more professional and pulled together, and some that look like there wasn't so much design thought put into them. Does this online environment affect how a candidate is viewed in the "real" world?

MR: I think that people have grown used to quality digital experiences, and you would expect to be able to find a navigation that leads you to the thing that you seek. There should be an architectural clarity to it.

I think there is a wide range. I won't take credit for this observation -- it's from one of our marketing people who was helping me with this. Mike Gravel's website looks like it was built in 1988 by his teenage child: it's HTML, it takes an enormously long time to load because it's actually just one graphic that's been cut up. On the other hand, I imagine that Mike Gravel is not positioned to pay a web-design firm to the same tune that a Hillary or Obama is.

OffTheBus: What would you really love to see candidates do design-wise -- there is a lot of red, white and blue out there. Is there any way candidates can differentiate themselves using design basics like color scheme, logos? For example, John McCain has dropped red, white and blue in his logo in favor of black, white, gray and yellow.

MR: What a maverick.

OffTheBus: Yes.

I think it's really hard to take red, white and blue out of a candidate-for-president's logo. If I were running for president, those would be my first three colors.

But you know, this is not Coke versus Pepsi. There is a temptation to view every candidate through the lens of a brand. That is not doing justice to the idea that we are picking a president of the United States, making a decision that is a lot less trivial than Cool Ranch versus Nacho Cheesier. It's an important decision, and if we're looking for differentiators in logo design, than I think we're screwed, frankly. Not that there's not good design and bad design at work here, but we should look at it more as you're making it easier for your potential constituents to learn about your position than to create some brand position for yourself.

OffTheBus: As far as the candidates communicating their messages so voters really understand them, is there anything that would get people's attention in a more authentic way?

M.R.: You always want your politicians to drop the politician act and talk to you like you're at the dinner table with them, and they're being open and honest about everything, and they're willing to say what they think without testing it or being advised on it. You always want that. I don't think it's ever realistic to think that you're going to get it, even from somebody who's brand position is an open, honest maverick.

It's just not realistic; these people are trying to run mistake-free campaigns that will appeal to the largest number of people, and they are not going to drop the politician act.

OffTheBus: What about candidates' blogs?

M.R.: Part of blogging is that it is a two-way communication and people comment back. Politicians tend to be very nervous about allowing criticism.

So I noticed this on Chris Dodd's site: he seems to accept some criticism on the message board, "accept" meaning he doesn't permit someone to press the "kill" switch on the posting.

I looked pretty deeply on the message boards on Hillary's site -- deeply, not exhaustively -- and you can't find that much criticism of Hillary on her site, which is kind of odd given that she is Hillary and there are people who love her, and they are all on her website, and you figure there are a lot of people don't love her who are also going to go and leave their "not-loving" messages on the website.

So it suggested to me that there are probably widely varying degrees of moderator control on politician's message boards. Coming from a [political and campaign] tradition of dirty tricks, you would expect to see a lot of opposition message board posting on each other's websites.

OffTheBus: Do you think this further extension of totally sanitizing a candidate and turning them into something that is very one-dimensional can work against a candidate in the eyes of the voters?

M.R.: Maybe that's why people sometimes make a decision based on who they'd rather have a beer with and cast their votes that way. We don't have a lot of Thomas Jeffersons running for president...there are not a lot of Alexander Hamiltons who wrote the Federalist Papers, [who] then go and run for president with a serious tradition of telling the world what you think. We have to assume that these candidates are saying versions of what they think or else how would they run the country coherently, or sleep at night? But it is frustratingly difficult to get beneath the surface.

OffTheBus: Do you think the social networks, YouTube, websites and blogs are having a large effect on how people view the candidates? Do you think they are a very crucial part of their message, or are TV, radio and other mediums still the predominant way to go for them?

M.R.: Well, their consultants all know how to use television, and the fact that they're reusing their television spots so centrally on their digital campaigns suggest that there is a reliance on leveraging what you know.

We're early in the season. I know that by the time that every election rolls around, people are sick of the TV spots that they see while they're really waiting for a rerun of "Friends" to come back on. So I have a hard time imagining that people are going on to YouTube to watch regular campaign ads, which is why I think that it's those "gotch ya" moments that are really where the YouTubes do their part to sway elections.

I couldn't tell you whether MySpace or Facebook has any effect; they're too new.

OffTheBus: Do you think that those "gotch ya" moments are perhaps one of the only ways we're going to see a little authenticity in the races?

M.R.: Yes, I do, because mistakes are always authentic. You actually made them.

OffTheBus: No focus group involved.

M.R.: Right. You can always trust that when somebody makes a mistake, they really made a mistake. You cannot trust when somebody walks a little old lady across the street that they did it out of pure concern for the little old lady.

OffTheBus: Is there anything else you would like to add?

M.R.: There are a lot of things that I would like to know at the end of this campaign, particularly around what we were just talking about regarding TV advertising. I want to know what percentage of candidates' budgets went into digital advertising.

My vested interest as a guy in digital marketing, I should be upfront about, but I genuinely believe that it is more cost-effective for a candidate to advertise on digital platforms than it is on television. I think television is way too expensive, I think that the cost of production of advertising is way too expensive, I think the fact that you can reach very widely in a lot of different formats to people online has every chance of pushing television advertising aside, whether we're talking about politicians or soap.

This is really the first election where digital advertising is a real, solid, established platform. I'll be interested to find out what percentage of advertising budgets went into digital.

OffTheBus: If you cut out TV entirely, are you losing a complete demographic or an age group?

M.R.: No. There is no age group that you cannot identify online, target towards and advertise to, and when you are advertising on television, you have no way of knowing whether the person who you advertise to took any action whatsoever. When you are advertising online, you can know whether somebody clicked off to your website, you can know whether they registered for your database, you can know, even if they didn't leave the advertisement, if they opted to watch all sixty seconds of it.

With television, ten seconds in, they could be going to the refrigerator. You can know so much more about how well your money was spent on digital.

You can also, by the way, [with] exit polling being a staple of elections, you can exit poll online, in a sense. If I'm Hillary Clinton and somebody interacted with an ad of mine, I can follow up with you on election day and pop you a survey and find out whether you went to the polls and ask you who you voted for. You can start to put in place now the measures that are going to determine whether and how the medium worked for future elections.