The New Political Video Strategy

You never saw it coming. It just popped up in your Facebook newsfeed. You clicked on it, just out of curiosity. Before you knew it, you were watching a video of Candidate X at a campaign rally blurting out a quick, peppy one-liner about a key issue facing voters in November. It was over before you could react. You don’t watch the debates, you avoid the online articles about the latest candidate doings, and you would never set foot at a campaign rally. But Candidate X found a way to get to you anyway. Candidate X knew you can’t resist hitting that little “play” arrow when it pops up in your news feed. Now that one-liner is burned into your mind. Mission accomplished.

The New Normal For Campaign Videos

Welcome to election year 2016. Cynics gleefully remind us that the Asian calendar designates 2016 as the Year of the Monkey. At Hencar, we’re less cynical. We simply want to emphasize that this, more than ever, is the year video will play a crucial role in elections on the national, state, and local levels. You won’t just see campaign videos on TV. Expect more campaign-related videos to pop up on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, and expect the steady stream to turn into a flood as we get closer to November. There will be snippets from campaign speeches. Sound excerpts from television interviews.  Quick one-liners from candidates buddying up to reporters on the plane, the bus, the car.

Strategies for Political Videos

Where will your favorite candidate turn up next? Social media are the venues of choice this year

It’s the availability of new video outlets, not a sudden awareness video’s potential to reach the masses, that is making the candidates so profuse in their outreach efforts. The use of video to sway public opinion in the political arena is hardly anything new. We only need look at film, the precursor to video, to find the proof. Case in point: Some of the films that Leni Riefenstahl did. Although she spent the majority of her 101 years denying complicity with the Nazis and repudiating the results of her work, those results were unquestionable. She certainly didn’t bend over backwards to use her films to dissuade anyone from jumping on board the Third Reich Express. On the other side of the big pond, once the war got underway, film was used to whip up patriotic fervor here in the U.S. Plenty of anti-Axis news clips and promotions for war bonds were aired before the main movie at theaters across the country.

Fast forward to the 1950s, and we get our first look at the first actual political commercials for television, when President Dwight Eisenhower put together around 40—yes, 40— spots in a single day at Radio City Music Hall. From that point on, politicians knew they had a patented way to reach a huge audience. They didn’t have to do it piecemeal with long, exhausting cross-country trips, reaching scores or maybe a couple of hundred people at a time. They could do it all at once through televised campaign ads. A novelty at first, a twist on the fireside chats that Roosevelt made popular, the ads now allowed people to sit in the comfort of their own homes while hearing AND seeing candidates explaining their positions. No need for voters to go out to a rally in the cold, the heat, or the rain.

And, through the ensuing years, there was no need for voters to miss the really important stuff. Meaning their television shows. No, the politicians considerately bookended their campaign spots with popular television shows, discouraging people from turning off the set lest they miscalculate and miss a heart-stopping  minute of  I Love Lucy. 

That paradigm is being challenged now. People are cutting the cord. No more cable. They’re picking and choosing what shows they want to watch through Netflix, Hulu, and a host of other streaming services. And guess what? Those sites aren’t required to air campaign ads. (They might be a little daring though, and air an ad for one of their political-themed shows during a genuine political event, as Netflix did during a recent debate on CNN.)

The Social Media Factor In Election 2016

While we’re spending less time watching traditional television, we’re shifting our attention to social media in droves. Politicians took advantage of social media in 2012, but now they’re really sold on using it for their campaigns. They have plenty of reason to be enthusiastic. Active monthly users of Twitter increased near 40% between the fourth quarter (election time) of 2012 and the third quarter of 2015. Facebook, which had already surpassed one billion users in the fourth quarter of 2012, saw a 30% increase by the third quarter of last year. Of course many of those users are not going to vote in this year’s election, but don’t totally discount their influence on shaping the political landscape. Even the opinions of people from other countries can affect the results.

So naturally, savvy politicians are putting heavy emphasis on social media. But wait! It’s not enough to just have a staffer post a picture, or even a series of pictures, from every campaign event. Not enough to Tweet a clever line from a debate. Why not? It’s political gold! Why are people not paying attention to that?

It’s the kittens.

Yeah, a still picture of Candidate Bonzo with a pie chart, versus a video of kittens playing. Is it any contest? Sure, the pie chart explains the candidate’s plan for increasing/decreasing your taxes or increasing/decreasing spending on entitlement programs or increasing/decreasing the number of countries Candidate Bonzo is willing to alienate with an aggressive foreign policy. That’s all important. But dammit, there’s the video of kittens. Kittens playing with a ball of foil and look, now they’re batting it back and forth like they’re playing TENNIS and oh my GOD now there’s a FREAKIN’ PUPPY coming in to play with them and it’s one of those BABY AKITAS THAT LOOK LIKE STUFFED TOYS!!!

Bedtime for Candidate Bonzo. Pack it in, sir.

OK, admittedly this is an unfair competition, because even if Candidate Bonzo is down on all fours playing foil-ball tennis with the reanimated corpse of Nikita Khrushchev, the kittens will get more views.

Video. That’s the key. Video will get you a lot more views (albeit not as many as the kittens) than a simple still picture. There’s method to this madness. When you look at see a video on Facbook news feed, unless it’s programmed to play automatically you will see a single picture from the video. We call that a thumbnail in the business. Here’s the thing: The thumbnail can be ANYTHING from the video. So you might not see Candidate X up there, but something else from the video. (Kittens? Maybe, if candidate X is cagey.) Just out of curiosity, you’ll click on it. And then the scenario we started out with will unfold. The ad plays, you get the message, and you can’t unlearn it.

Social media=free advertising

Using social media to get out a political message is smart on a number of levels. First, it’s free. Why worry about questionable funding from stealth groups with an agendaA? That just looks shady. Social media is free. And it’s unrestricted, for the most part. Plus, it utilizes a grassroots campaign to disperse the message. One person likes a candidate’s video and shares it. Then, all of that person’s followers see it. Some of them share it. And so on, and so on, and so on. It’s kind of like Tribbles. Or cockroaches. The video proliferates at an almost out-of-control rate.

There’s also a sort of élan provided by the popular propagation method. Anyone can buy time for an ad on TV. If you’ve got the money, you can get air time. Hell, they kept Maude on the air for more than five years.  But, if your Facebook friend Betty is sharing the video, it means she likes it. It’s a personal endorsement. You like Betty. You trust her judgement. Surely she must be cool, because she wouldn’t be your Facebook friend otherwise. You certainly don’t just accept friend requests to make yourself look more popular. Not very often, anyway. If Betty likes it, it’s something you should pay attention to. You can trust her more than the idiots at the broadcast networks, who renewed Who Wants to be a Naked Millionaire Who’s Afraid? for a tenth season, which is where you’d normally see a campaign ad for candidate X. Yes, it’s got the Betty seal of of approval. Case closed.

The jaded may think they’ve tuned in, turned on, and dropped out, but like it or not political candidates have gone one better: They’ve wised up. It will be a lot harder to dodge political pitches this election, unless you’re of a mind to join a Carthusian monastery. So take it with a grain of salt. It’s just the universe’s way of telling you that you should participate in the political process one way or another. And who knows? Maybe, just maybe, you’ll find out there’s a presidential candidate who wants to populate the Cabinet with kittens.

Now we’ll really see an end to gridlock in Washington.