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The Road We’ve Traveled: A New Form of Political Speech

Video messaging is a tried and true form of political outreach and the 30 second political spot has been a campaign staple for decades.  But online video, which is becoming more and more ubiquitous, is an entirely new medium, and campaigns are doing more than just uploading 30 second ads to YouTube.  Online video is a new form of political speech.

A New Message for a New Medium

To capture the growing audience of online video consumers, presidential campaigns are increasingly turning to online video as a form of communication.  But this communication is different, and it has been treated as such.

A recent study by the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution analyzed “3,118 YouTube videos uploaded during election campaigns by 72 parties across 12 countries.”  They found that online video tended to be significantly more positive, and featured significantly fewer attack ads than television.  This particular discrepancy was even more pronounced in the U.S. than in Europe.

Rob Salmond, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan, and lead researcher of this study, hypothesized that the lack of negativity among YouTube ads stems from the different audience associated with each form.  Watching an online video requires action on the part of the viewer, such as searching for the candidate online or clicking a link shared by someone in her network, whereas watching a TV commercial is much more passive.  Viewers could be watching a TV ad because they’re simply too lazy to change the channel.  Online video viewers are probably more engaged, more partisan, and hungrier for information than their television viewing counterparts.  Hence, positive videos based on past accomplishments make more sense in this medium, as they can be used to inspire the candidate’s existing base.

To shed further light on the differences: according to 2008 Pew survey data, Americans who have engaged with a political video online are more likely to be younger, more affluent, more politically active, have higher levels of education and are less likely to be politically neutral or undecided.

Interestingly, Salmond also discovered a difference in which emotions the videos appealed to.

“While there is no important difference between TV and YouTube-only videos in terms of how much anger they cued in viewers, there is a large difference in how much fear the ads aim to create. Over half of the TV attack advertisements I examined contained strong fear appeals, compared to less than a quarter of the YouTube-only negative ads. And while 41 percent of the YouTube-only attack videos contained no fear appeal at all, only 16 percent of the negative TV ads did the same. Fear and anger are very different. An appeal to anger is often about events that have already happened, and will frequently require statements of (alleged) fact to cue the anger. Fear, on the other hand, is more prospective. It is about tomorrow rather than yesterday.”

Another significant difference is length.  Campaigns are taking advantage of the fact that YouTube videos are free to host and broadcast, and not subject to any length restrictions.  The average length of a YouTube video across all countries is five minutes, even including the 30 second TV spots that have been uploaded to YouTube.

Furthermore, YouTube allows for social sharing, and is more likely to be a trusted form of speech than a television ad.  Darrel West, also of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, says:

“This year it’s all about getting your message into those trusted networks because everyone is suspicious about politicians.  It’s hard to be persuasive through a direct advertisement. But if you can get people to share videos, it adds a degree of credibility because a friend is endorsing it. People will take it more seriously.”

Nothing exemplifies this new form better than the Obama reelection campaign’s 17-minute online video: “The Road We’ve Traveled

The Road We’ve Traveled

This is not your average YouTube video.  “The Road We’ve Traveled” is a 17-minute documentary, narrated by Tom Hanks and directed by Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim, whose impressive resume includes “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Waiting for Superman.”

Due to its length, the video is able to build a narrative to remind viewers of the state of the union in 2008, and how Barack Obama has faced what anyone must admit are extraordinary challenges.  To drive home the point, it features interviews with Vice President Joe Biden, former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and even former president Bill Clinton.  It covers topics ranging from the auto bailouts to the death of Osama bin Laden.

Validating the audience theory espoused by the Brookings Institution research and offering a glimpse at the future of online future, Teddy Goff, the Obama campaign’s digital director, told the New York Times that “[online video] is in some ways the primary way our digital operation communicates with supporters. And increasingly it will be the primary way we communicate with undecided voters.”

Some, including Mitt Romney, have dismissed “The Road We’ve Traveled” as an ‘infomercial’ while others have complained that it is not an objective documentary.  Well, no, it isn’t objective.  But it wasn’t designed to be objective; it was designed to be persuasive.  This is not a news story, this is part of Obama’s re-election campaign and it is designed to help him get reelected.  It is more than a political ad, but it is still political speech.

The Obama campaign is placing a bet that this narrative will inspire his base, who will remember why they supported him in the first place, and that the supporters will disseminate widely.  After the video’s initial launch, Obama’s Communications Director David Axelrod responded to questions tweeted by followers that included the hashtag #theroadwevetraveled.  Letting supporters take control and share the message adds a layer of social proof and endorsement that lends credibility while allowing the campaign to broadcast its message at a much lower cost.

As the digital campaign continues to evolve, so will this communication medium.  Whether or not this video proves successful in the end, it is unlikely to be the last of its kind.

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