The 2008 U.S. Presidential election is expected to attract more than a billion dollars in spending by some estimates, with the lion's share of that funding being funneled into media buys. But as noted by the New York Times the 2008 election is also likely to be the first election in which freely available content from candidates in social media portals will play a key factor in their media strategies. In addition to MySpace pages for candidates the presence of candid clips of candidates on YouTube turned out to play a pivotal role in key 2006 U.S. elections, providing an outlet for content that major news outlets had to cover and by doing so shape the dialogue. The New York Times today whines that all of this openness makes it difficult for candidates to shape their messages.
Yet what could be a better channel for getting your message out to the masses? Already one of the more interesting clips of the still-young 2008 campaign was concocted by an amateur, playing on a 1984 ad for Apple's Macintosh computer to the detriment of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton:
While the eventual impact of this clip is still hard to determine, it has already been viewed more than 900,000 times, not too far from the number who viewed the original Lyndon Johnson "daisy" anti-war ad in 1964's presidential campaign. If this is what one person with only the most nominal technology at their disposal can create, what could a campaign with sophisticated production equipment and messaging goals do on YouTube? Unfortunately for the campaign consultants whose fees rely in large part on placing ad buys in traditional media outlets the best buys in the 2008 may turn out to be free placements on outlets such as YouTube where the message is the star of an ad-supported show. The "daisy" ad, after all, gained most of its impact not from its original airing but from the coverage that it received as content in other ad-supported shows.
In the YouTube era it can be as important to get your message into the flow of conversation as much as to push it down people's throats with endless repetition. Services like YouTube that monetize the conversation as much as the content itself allow the "push" to come from the audience instead of the media outlet, providing a peer-level endorsement through voting and distribution that's difficult if not impossible to replicate via traditional media channels. It means, of course, a whole new spin on marketing in general: instead of creating messages that can't be questioned or voted upon YouTube and other social media outlets require marketers to create value in the midst of conversations that supply an implied endorsement far more powerfully than interrupt-driven advertising has done to date. Content finds its own level in these conversations, favoring multiple small engagements rather than high-risk big engagements.
I think that we'll see the "daisy" effect in 2008 via YouTube and other social media outlets far more than we have in past elections. Smart candidates will use their own producers to create a forest of interesting "quick-hit" messages for audiences to wade through online, and will aim their loyal followers through weblogs and email campaigns to the most popular of these messages as well as to amateur messages that seem to be resonating with voters. The most popular of these messages may wind up being promoted to broadcast media usage, reversing the flow of clips in a Current-style editorial process that allows tried and tested content to work its way towards broader audiences. The implied endorsement of these born-online broadcast ads is likely to be far more potent, as their airings will capture the attention of people who have already seen them and discussed them online and who are ready to tell their family members or friends, "Watch this, this is cool."
Ultimately this may mean lower budgets for traditional media spends, but I don't think that we're going to see a great lessening of spending in 2008 - only a more well-targeted spending that focuses more on creating online endorsements through social media more aggressively. In the long run, though, established media outlets will have to come up with new ways to make money off of political campaigns than can compete more effectively with outlets that use political ad content as free programming that can attract other ads. Politics in an era of user-driven distribution is certainly going to be a different animal.
UPDATE: The creator of the "Hillary 1984" video has been identified as Phil de Vellis, a Web developer associated with Democratic campaigns, including the Barack Obama campaign. He has resigned his position, but in an interesting post on The Huffington Post de Vellis notes "This ad was not the first citizen ad, and it will not be the last. The game has changed."