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YouTube, election ad central

October 30, 2008|DAVID SARNO

We already know this is the year of the first "YouTube election," where the most reliable place to find the latest footage everyone was talking about was no longer CNN, Fox News or the broadcast networks but rather from one of 10 dozen websites that undoubtedly already had the clip parsed, posted and ready for inhalation. The Web has become a political junkie's cornucopia, overflowing with excerpts of every kind.

If you're like me, you yearn for the good old days, when October meant being bombarded with a small number of expensive political advertisements -- the ones that just told us what to believe already, so we didn't have to waste time figuring it out.

But all is not lost. Paid political ads, it turns out, have joined the swelling ranks of their unpaid video brethren and found a new home online. Only, just like everything else on YouTube, the word "paid" no longer really applies. None of the hundreds of Web-only ads for California's 12 ballot propositions cost a cent to upload, enabling proponents and opponents across the state a low-cost way to spread their message to a potentially vast audience.

"Potentially" being the key word. Unlike paying for a slice of prime TV airtime, when millions of captive viewers will see your message, every video uploaded to the Web starts off with zero viewers -- and a whole lot of them end there too. Weighing against the freeness of online distribution, then, is the serious problem of getting anyone to notice your new video among the 10,000 that were uploaded the very same second.

Make it at home

Still, the haystack problem hasn't dissuaded California activists from generating a wave of political ads, many of which are home brewed -- a kind of creative alternative to the standard campaign contribution.

Jerod Gunsberg, 36, of the South Bay, decided to use his home computer to make an ad against Proposition 6 -- the "Safe Neighborhoods Act," which allocates about 1% of the state's budget to anti-crime programs.

"It seemed like a lot more fun to make a campaign video about ballot propositions than to write blog posts about them," said Gunsberg, who blogs frequently about state issues but is not associated with the No on 6 campaign.

Gunsberg's snappy, tongue-in-cheek spot warns voters not to fall for the measure's claim that it will decrease crime. "Prop. 6 will make your neighborhood more dangerous and lead California to financial ruin!" the voice-over warns. A moment later, an image of Disneyland's main marquee pops up: "Closed forever," it reads. "Everyone is broke."

The video ad has netted only 250 views since it was posted on Monday, but Gunsberg is OK with that.

"It's not like one video on these things breaks through," he said. "There's a bunch of campaign videos out there, especially on the ballot props. If they all generate a few hundred views each, maybe it aggregates into this building awareness."

Modest awareness building is probably the best-case scenario this time around, given that the state has more than 16 million registered voters, and even the most successful Web video ads are still hovering around 100,000 views -- a little more than one-half of 1% of the electorate, assuming (wrongly) that the ads have had no repeat viewers.

Even Proposition 8, the highly visible measure that seeks to outlaw same-sex marriage, has had trouble attracting the kind of viewing stats that go along with so-called viral success. The No on 8 campaign's video of Ellen DeGeneres asking viewers to reject the measure has become one of the most-watched online ads of any ballot prop campaign, scoring 103,000 views in two weeks.

For comparison, a 40-second video showing a bolt of lightning striking behind Sen. Barack Obama as he gave a speech Tuesday had 250,000 views by Wednesday morning.

But Chris Maliwat, the head of the No on 8 Web effort, noted that the campaign's 40 online videos, including a number from sources independent of the campaign, have millions of views in aggregate. And that the true power of a YouTube campaign is that the issue can be approached from many angles, rather than just the lowest common denominator that expensive mass media ads require.

"With a normal campaign, within a month or two, you might have six or 12 total spots that run about 30 seconds and play the same kind of dreary music," Maliwat said. "But when you've got a wide variety of voices showing their points of view, the authenticity of it resonates with people in different ways."

No on 8 covers the rhetorical bases by variously featuring celebrities, politicians, lawyers, religious leaders, comedians and even real people. (Notably absent, as Jonathan Rauch noted in a Times editorial this week, are gays themselves.)

Several of the Yes on 8 campaign's videos have scored well too, but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined a request to discuss its Web approach.

And on to broadcast

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