Over the weekend, I watched The Last Hurrah, a 1958 movie adaptation of the 1956 novel by Edwin O’Connor. It starred Spencer Tracy as Frank Skeffington, the veteran mayor of a city that is frequently assumed to be Boston. Skeffington, who has mastered old-style ward politics, is defeated by a neophyte candidate, who has mastered a new campaign medium: television.
Fast forward to 2012: Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney appears to have mastered what is now old-style TV advertising, but President Barack Obama seems to have mastered a new campaign medium: YouTube. Video marketers and producers can learn a few lessons from this new twist on the plot of a classic movie.
YouTube Political Marketing & 2012 Presidential Candidates
Candidate Video Views Compared
If you want to see how the 2012 presidential candidates stack up against each other on YouTube, go to the Politics channel and scroll down to the chart showing “How the candidates compare.” From Feb. 18 to Mar. 18, 2012, Obama’s YouTube channel had more than 3.8 million video views, Ron Paul’s channel had almost 911,000, Romney’s channel had over 682,000, Rick Santorum’s channel had more than 589,000, and Newt Gingrich’s channel had fewer than 463,000.
Super PAC Views Compared:
Then, go to Google Politics & Elections and look at Super PAC Views on YouTube. On March 19, 2012, the pro-Paul Revolution PAC’s channel had 3.15 million views, the pro-Romney Restore Our Future’s channel had 1.39 million, the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future’s channel had 770,000, and the pro-Santorum Red, White & Blue Fund’s channel had 47,000. Although not included in the chart, Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting president Obama’s re-election, had more than 686,000 video views on March 19, 2012.
Of course, the 2012 presidential campaign is also being waged on television. According to The Washington Post’s Mad Money, “TV ad buys are typically the single largest expenditure of a presidential campaign.”
Using data provided by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, the Post reports that the pro-Romney Restore our Future has spent $24.8 million on TV ads (91 percent on negative ads), Romney has spent $12.5 million (52 percent on negative ads), the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future has spent $5.7 million (67 percent on negative ads), the pro-Santorum Red, White & Blue Fund has spent $3.2 million (89 percent on negative ads), Paul has spent $2.9 million (54 percent on negative ads), Obama has spent $2.2 million (1 percent on negative ads), Gingrich has spent $1.8 million (49 percent on negative ads), Santorum has spent $1.5 million (60 percent on negative ads), and the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action has spent $0.9 million (32 percent on negative ads).
In other words, 71 percent of TV ad buys through Super Tuesday were for negative ads! Was this smart?
MeTube: Political Advertising, Election Campaigns, and YouTube
The Brookings Institution tackled this question in a paper, “MeTube: Political Advertising, Election Campaigns, and YouTube, published March 13, 2012. Written by Rob Salmond, the paper examined the tone, content, and popularity of 3,118 YouTube videos uploaded in various campaigns in 12 countries.
The paper’s primary finding is that YouTube campaign videos were more positive than ads aired on television. Salmond said,
“YouTube videos are more positive than TV advertisements because they are more narrowly targeted to the highly informed, highly motivated, usually supportive people who view a candidate’s online videos. Informing and inspiring supporters is a task well suited to YouTube videos.”
Salmond added, “Attacking an opponent, however, is more effectively done on TV, because weak supporters of a candidate’s opponent – the usual target for negative advertising – are more likely to watch the candidate’s TV spot than to watch the candidate’s YouTube video. This bifurcation between a sunny YouTube presence and a mean-spirited television ad campaign is stronger in US-style winner-take-all elections than in European-style proportional elections, and has major consequences for the character of campaigning and how candidates are seen by voters.”
The Medium is the Message
Another indication that the medium is the message is the 17-minute documentary-style film by Davis Guggenheim called “The Road We've Traveled.” Uploaded to the Obama campaign’s YouTube channel on Mar. 15, the film has almost 1.5 million views.
On Mar. 16, an article by Nancy Scola in The Atlantic, “Why Obama Really Wants to Make It in the Movies,” said,
“What the Obama campaign is playing with here is the brand-new version of YouTube. If you’re used to getting your YouTube content through videos embedded on websites, it’s worth checking out the platform itself. The new YouTube is built around channels, and the Obama campaign has customized the heck out of theirs.”
Scola added, “And where this gets particularly interesting is where you consider the potential of this sort of platform when it's powered by the social data that the web's major social hubs make available.”
A lot can happen between now and the presidential election on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. But don’t be surprised if the President, who uses YouTube videos to inform and inspire supporters, defeats the challenger, who uses a mean-spirited television ad campaign. A lot of people would like to see “The Last Hurrah” for negative TV ads.