Polarization seems to be a prerequisite for the viral success of a political video. While the conventional regurgitations of political positions and platforms fail to draw flies, politicians stuffing their feet in their mouths rarely fail to get the YouTube view-meter spinning. For a political video to go viral requires a very precise perfect storm of circumstances: The video must either offend or elate a significant portion of the population; the mass media has to pick up the story; and the amount of online social media chatter has to become pervasive. Whether the video is widely viewed to be inspirational or idiotic has very little bearing on the number of YouTube views.
1 Second Scream = Millions of Views
A single viral video can make or break an entire presidential campaign, as was learned by 2004 frontrunner Howard Dean. After being considered a virtual lock for the nomination, Dean’s candidacy was instantly derailed by a single one-second “Scream” where the 79th Governor of Vermont got carried away by his own primary success in front of a cheering crowd and came off looking like a crazed serial killer, a throwback to 1930s German political rallies or, even worse, a clone of Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer.
Brokeback Mountain Jacket
In his Strong video, Rick Perry has reached the pantheon of viral political greatness by swiftly approaching 7 million views. His claim that America is now a place “where gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas” has become a rallying cry for the far right to support the candidate and the far left to humiliate him. It can be argued that the image of Rick Perry standing tall in a verdant field was specifically intended to draw the support of the rural right while inflaming the urban left. The fact that the jacket he is wearing is eerily similar to that which Heath Ledger donned as the recalcitrant cowboy in Brokeback Mountain might be just another campaign gaffe or it could be a remarkably shrewd strategic move. As one of the primary goals of a political video is to generate social network chatter, the jacket alone may be responsible for driving a million views.
The Goal Is the Sharing
From a viral video standpoint it doesn’t seem to matter how many times Rick Perry will “oops” himself into also-ran status, Sarah Palin would refer to “our North Korean allies” and Christine O’Donnell would address the questions of her “witchcraft.” The critical aspect is that enough people will see the video and feel sufficiently motivated to share it with their social clique along with one of the typically short exhortations that have become this decade’s version of a salutation: “check this out,” “this is hilarious” or simply “wow!” It is as if a video’s virality was an end in itself and any tactic is considered fair game, including making the candidate look like an fool.
The Infamous Cain “Smoking” Video
Herman Cain became the most talked-about candidate in a crowded GOP field on the back of a strange, (purposely?) cheaply produced handheld video where his chief of staff Mark Block lights up a cigarette in the painfully silent closing moments. Although Cain’s campaign may have been later set back by his own personal indiscretions, the effect on his visibility when the video of Block’s smoking was repeated ad infinitum on major news media certainly established the presence of the Godfather’s Pizza king, who in another video drew parallels between himself and another King… this time Martin Luther King Jr.
In a viral world where P.T. Barnum’s infamous motto of “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right” has come to represent a basal campaign philosophy, there may be ample reason to believe that even videos that are pilloried by the mass media and on social networks can be termed successful. By reducing campaign video success to a sheer numbers game of views, drawing attention by any way possible may be the video politician’s new mantra.