It's nearly impossible to predict which political ads will go viral, or if they'll have any real effect once they do.
With 6.7 million views and counting, Rick Perry’s “Strong” is by far the most viral video of this election cycle. It also might be the most rapidly disliked video in YouTube history. The video—which features a casually clad Perry bemoaning the state of America, “where gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas”—has racked up 675,000 dislikes, more than twice the number of votes against Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” Perry’s video has also spawned dozens of spoof responses, from atheists to rabbis to Jesus himself. By all accounts, “Strong” seems an epic, backfiring fiasco.
And yet, not only is everyone watching “Strong”—it was the most-viewed in the world last week, a rare feat for a political video—the right people are watching it. According to Ramya Raghavan, news and politics manager for YouTube, “Strong” was the most-viewed video in Des Moines, Iowa and Manchester, New Hampshire—the biggest cities in the most important early-voting states. Liberals may recoil at Perry’s pandering to the religious right, but any GOP candidate who’s survived a presidential primary knows that pandering to the religious right is a pretty sound political strategy.
Time will tell if Perry’s effort will pay off, but one thing is for certain: “Strong” didn’t cost his campaign much. Perry’s campaign strategists were well aware that the small ad buy in western Iowa would provoke a backlash on the left and create instant cable news chatter, thus attracting far more viewers online, for free.
The low-budget viral video strategy worked wonders in 2008 for Mike Huckabee, who soared in the polls in the wake of his Chuck Norris endorsement ad (“My plan to secure the borders? Chuck Norris.”), which drew a stark contrast between the folksy, funny Arkansan and the robotically stiff Mitt Romney. Despite Romney’s persistent courting of Iowans and larger campaign war chest, Huckabee coasted to victory in the Iowa caucuses.
During the general election campaign that year, none of John McCain’s big-budget TV ads made as big of a splash as “The One,” a campaign web video that mashed up footage of Barack Obama with Charlton Heston’s Moses from The Ten Commandments. The video, which came on the heels of Obama’s speech in front of 200,000 people in Berlin, mocked Obama’s followers as Messianic worshippers. “The One,” which played on repeat on cable news day after day, changed the media narrative on Obama from “Hope” to “Too much hope?” It seemed to spook the Obama campaign, which began to avoid big rallies in favor of small, closed town hall events.
And, of course, Herman Cain’s campaign went from being a joke to a joke that lots of people took very seriously thanks in large part to a shoddily produced web video. Shot outside of a Vegas casino where a Republican presidential debate was taking place, Cain’s campaign manager Mark Block stares into the camera, says “We’ve run a campaign like nobody’s ever seen,” and blows cigarette smoke into the camera—and the entire political establishment. In the weeks following the video’s release, Cain’s fundraising soared, his media coverage exploded, and he rose to first place in poll after poll. The video, which cost nothing to produce, has garnered 1.7 million views.
Of course, orchestrated attempts to "go viral" result in failure far more often than in huge success. Take Carly Fiorina’s infamous “Demon Sheep.” Unlike Perry’s “Strong,” which targeted a specific constituency, the painfully bizarre “Demon Sheep” resonated with no one. And who remembers the video starring and directed by Rob Reiner for Hillary Clinton’s campaign? Maybe a few of the paltry 29,000 who watched it?
When I worked on Obama’s ‘08 campaign, we were consistently surprised by which of our videos went viral. A three-minute video of an elderly volunteer from Colorado— hardly the recipe for viral magic—drew more than half a million views in a few days. And by far the most viral video of the entire campaign featured not one celebrity mashup or cute kitten; it was the candidate’s 37-minute long speech about race, the single most uncomfortable topic in America. The speech has been viewed more than 10 million times on YouTube.
And I learned the hard way that viral videos aren’t great at inspiring action. Just before the 2008 Iowa caucuses, I created a video deliberately designed to go viral: it featured clips from two of Obama’s most inspiring speeches, crowd footage from the largest events of the campaign, and a triumphal soundtrack that was literally titled “Call of Duty.”
The video did go viral—it’s been viewed more than 1.3 million times (I admit I still occasionally check the stats today)—so I asked my boss if we could feature it on the campaign’s donation page. He agreed to run a split test over a few days: half of site visitors would see my video on the page, while the other half would see a cheesy, black-and-white image of the Obama family. If my video earned more donations, it could stay. The Hallmark card photo absolutely destroyed my video in the test, and the video was yanked from the donate page for eternity.
It’s nearly impossible to predict what will catch on—and even when something does hit the viral jackpot, it’s not clear that it will deliver much more than a temporary shift in the media narrative, and at best, a bump in the polls. More often than not, the viral videos that matter—the ones that don’t just shift the poll numbers, but the culture—don’t come from campaigns, but from volunteers. From the brilliant “Barocky” videos to the star-studded “Yes We Can,” supporter videos helped build the narrative of Obama for America as a once-in-a-lifetime movement, not just a political campaign. An official video will never match the gritty, bottom-up authenticity of user-generated content.
Yet despite the difficulty in predicting whether videos will go viral and the seemingly negligible effects when they do, campaigns will continue to strive for the white whale of new media—especially if Perry’s homophobic rant helps him place well in the Iowa caucuses. Is it worth the obsessive effort?
Chris Royalty, deputy video director of Obama ’08, calls viral videos an “elusive harbinger of success that distracts staff from producing work that matters,” adding that “It's a better allocation of resources to focus on videos that tell your story in an authentic way to the people that matter to you than to grasp at millions of views for a single video.” Indeed, much of Royalty and his team’s focus was on creating targeted constituency-focused videos that featured ordinary volunteers talking about Obama, from Seniors for Obama to Jewish Americans for Obama to state-specific videos like Road to Change: Texas. None of these videos struck viral gold, but they were precisely the kind of content that led to meaningful, personalized sharing (“See, Bob, I told you his campaign was reaching out to seniors!”). And because the campaign uploaded 2,000 videos (five times more than the closest competitor) there was an option for nearly every niche.
Campaigns will continue to spend hundreds of millions, mostly on television advertising; this cycle, we’ll see more than $6 billion spent. But there is no better persuasion tool than a personal endorsement. This is the inherent power of online videos: Unlike television ads, which interrupt us from what we want to be watching, we usually watch a YouTube clip is because someone we know and trust told us to. In many cases, the personal message that accompanies the link matters just as much as the video itself: “This is hilarious” or “Weird video!” is not the same as, “I think you’ll relate to this because…” In other words, what’s truly important is not how often a video is shared, but how it is shared.