It's not unusual for people to look for political laughs during a combative presidential campaign. What is unusual about the 2004 race is where they looked -- the Internet.
From the commander in chief cartwheeling with a pink bow on his head to Sens. John F. Kerry and John Edwards exchanging teen-lust glances, satiric images of both candidates on the Internet clogged millions of e-mail inboxes this campaign season. To be sure, people still looked to TV comics for a daily dose of political satire, but the Web often provided source material -- as well as filling computer screens with images that roundly skewered both candidates.
The standout star of this online galaxy was JibJab.com's "This Land," which recorded 5 million hits the week it launched in July. Its sequel, "Good to Be in D.C.," sung to the tune of "Dixie," premiered on Leno's "Tonight Show" Oct. 7. The short spoofs, created by Santa Monica brothers Gregg and Evan Spiridellis, had Americans giggling at the animated lampooning of both Bush ("right-wing nut job") and Kerry ("liberal wiener").
But if you thought the only tune the caricatured candidates knew was "This Land Is Your Land," you haven't Googled lately. In what analysts say is the future of campaigning, merciless Web videos -- both sober and silly, some produced independently, others with partisan backing -- played the role of provocateur in an election that has cemented the power of the Internet.
"Without question, ["This Land" has] been singularly the most widely viewed political ad in 2004," says Larry Purpuro, the Republican National Committee's deputy chief of staff and Internet strategist in 2000. "Any time you have a single communication watched by an estimated 50 million people, you're talking about serious influential impact."
These cartoons are "incredibly funny, they push the creative edge, and they didn't have to go through 10 layers of focus groups and lowest common denominator lawyering," Purpuro says. And thanks to broadband Internet access and Web cartooning tools, cutting and pasting your own political missive is increasingly easy. Many of these Web videos target a young, Internet-savvy audience that looks beyond cable news spinners for their news.
"Campaigns ignore these new animation videos at their peril," Purpuro says.
Bloggers such as Dan Spencer helped spread the word about JibJab and its online cousins. Spencer, 52, of Norwalk, Conn., linked to the "This Land" video from his site. "I thought it was so cool that it could be funny and pick on both sides equally," says the lawyer, who plans to vote for Bush.
But if the JibJab shorts' skewering is even-handed, much of the genre is starkly partisan. Both parties have tried to co-opt the online video by releasing a handful of Web spots that mock their opponents. The Republicans reimagined the Democratic nominee as Austin Powers, "International Man of Mystery," after Kerry said he'd conferred with foreign leaders about the Iraq war (at http://www.rnc.org/News/GOPTV .aspx). The Democrats strung together shots of President Bush scowling during the first debate. "It framed the post-debate spin," says Democratic National Committee spokesman Josh Earnest of the spot, which can be found at http://www.democrats.org/news/200410010006.html.
"The Internet affords you a certain amount of freedom to try things you wouldn't try on mainstream television," Earnest says.
In a close election, partisan online videos can fire up a political base. "Preaching to the choir is important when every vote matters," says Michael Cornfield, a consultant with the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Sometimes, though, harshly partisan Web spots can backfire. When the liberal activist group MoveOn sponsored an anti-Bush commercial contest last year, two spots that included footage of Adolf Hitler attracted criticism from Republicans and negative media coverage. "Saturation or having these third-party groups acting on your behalf is not always a good thing," Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke says.
Dan Noe, a 27-year-old Web designer, was hammered with e-mails from people who stumbled upon his montage of Kerry and Edwards canoodling to "Let's Get It On." They thought he was homophobic. Noe, a Huxley, Iowa, Bush supporter, says he simply thought Kerry and Edwards were prissy.
In addition, a Web video called "Campaign Jukebox" that featured a bass-playing Kerry, drew some negative reactions on Atomfilms.com's page called "Mock the Vote." One user wrote "If you are gonna make cartoons make them to be funny, don't make them to push propaganda."
Although most online ditties won't be swaying any undecided voters, the format is likely here to stay, observers say. In future races, campaigns are likely to attach Web spot designers to their staffs. Use of Web videos could also trickle down to state and local races.
Meanwhile, Web designers are waiting to see what happens in today's presidential vote, but either way, it's sure to make a great cartoon.
Caught in the Web sights
Among the many sites offering political Internet videos are:
Or, for more, visit: