A journal of television and new media

“Why 2008 Won’t Be Like 1984:” Viral Videos and Presidential Politics

by: Chuck Tryon / Fayetteville State University

As a media studies scholar and an incurable political junkie, I watched with fascination this week as the drama surrounding the (initially) anonymously posted “Vote Different” advertisement unfolded. In my previous article for Flow, I addressed some reservations about the hype regarding participatory culture, while the 2006 elections clearly depicted the potential for online videos to shape political discourse.

The “Vote Different” video, in my reading, raises further questions regarding the potential of the internet to shape the political process, questions I’m not entirely sure I can answer. These questions grow out of the following dilemma: While I remain unconvinced that the “Vote Different” advertisement significantly altered the current political discourse, I still find the underlying message of citizen empowerment irresistible.

“Vote Different,” a mashup of the highly-regarded 1984 Apple Macintosh Super Bowl advertisement directed by Ridley Scott, replaces the IBM-style Big Brother figure in the Apple advertisement with footage of Hillary Clinton’s “Conversation with America” speech. The ad famously depicts a dreary world in which workers wearing identical grey clothing move listlessly through their workday while passively absorbing the messages delivered from the giant screen that hovers above them. As Senator Clinton speaks to the inert audience, an athletic woman sprints through the crowd, throwing a hammer through the screen, and by implication shattering the “politics-as-usual” she has come to represent. Edited onto the woman’s t-shirt is a modified Apple logo made to resemble an O, identifying her with rival presidential candidate Barack Obama. The original advertisement, an allegory of the Macintosh user fighting against a conformist establishment, maps neatly onto cultural desires for a more participatory political system.

The mashup is one of the first truly viral videos to emerge from the 2008 presidential election. The original “Vote Different” video had been viewed over two million times on YouTube alone, but its real online audience would be almost impossible to measure. The video has also inspired a number of imitations, including this clumsily assembled anti-Obama mashup of the same Macintosh advertisement with the Illinois Senator’s popular Monday Night Football appearance.

Of course, one of the reasons the advertisement is so successful is its creative reinterpretation of Ridley Scott’s original Macintosh advertisement, which aired only once during the 1984 Super Bowl. While the mashup attempts to align Senator Clinton with “politics-as-usual,” through the reference to Apple’s “revolutionary” brand, it has the added bonus of bringing the legendary Apple advertisement back into public consciousness (in fact, I’m not sure that I had even seen the original Macintosh ad since its 1984 broadcast).

Much of the controversy surrounding the video can be attributed to the fact that it was originally posted anonymously on YouTube several weeks ago under the pseudonym, ParkRidge47 (Hilary Clinton was born in Park Ridge, Illinois in 1947). Because the video was posted anonymously and because it explicitly identified Clinton with Big Brother, a number of readings emerged on the web attributing the video not only to Obama supporters but also to Republican activists. While the anonymity initially posed a number of interpretive difficulties, Jeff Jarvis argued in The Washington Post that the anonymously posted advertisement betrayed an important trust within political discourse, representing the possibility that attack ads could come from “anywhere.” The video’s creator, Phil de Vellis, eventually stepped forward, taking credit for the ad when it became clear that his work on it might reflect poorly on his employer, Blue State Digital, which had worked on the Obama campaign. De Vellis’s involvement with Blue State Digital certainly raises questions about whether the advertisement is genuinely the product of a “political outsider;” however, the repeated viewings certainly suggest that the advertisement has struck a chord with the groups who have been closely following the 2008 election.

Political Cartoon by Lisa Benson

Political Cartoon by Lisa Benson (3/21/07)

The debate about the advertisement also managed to attract the attention of newspaper and cable news analysts who typically argued that its popularity marked a historic shift where anyone could participate in the election process. In fact, the advertisement has prompted a number of observers to describe the advertisement as “revolutionary,” with Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute, arguing in the San Francisco Chronicle, that the ad is “about the end of the broadcast era.” However, while the ad is no doubt powerful and illustrates the potential of citizen media, I can’t help but find myself feeling skeptical when I hear phrases like “revolutionary” and “end of the broadcast era” being thrown around. Instead, it’s worth emphasizing that the ad’s popularity actually depends in part on the broadcast media that it supposedly threatens. De Vellis himself promoted this reading on The Huffington Post, commenting that “the specific point of the ad was that Obama represents a new kind of politics, and that Senator Clinton’s ‘conversation’ is disingenuous. And the underlying point was that the old political machine no longer holds all the power.”

Whether de Vellis’s specific point about the Clinton campaign is true, I remain somewhat uncertain regarding the role of voter-generated content in shaping political discourse. The advertisement does little, in my opinion, to change popular perception of the two Democratic frontrunners. Clinton will continue to be perceived as the Washington insider identified with traditional political campaigns while Obama’s image as someone who will reinvigorate the political process remains unchanged. It is clear, however, that these videos are attracting audiences because they tap into larger cultural desires regarding the election process. As David Weinberger pointed out in the Washington Post article, “expressing frustration and unhappiness with the level of control that her campaign is exerting.” I certainly recognize the degree to which the “Vote Different” advertisement and its popularity is an expression of the desire to open up the election process to greater participation. And the expression of this desire may be the great contribution of “Vote Different” to our ongoing conversations about democracy and participation.

Image Credits:
1. Clinton Still from Summary
2. Political Cartoon by Lisa Benson (3/21/07)

Video Credits:
1. “Vote Different” (Anti-Clinton)
2. “Vote Different” (Anti-Obama)

Please feel free to comment.


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Comments

  • Kristen said:

    I share your skepticism about the “revolutionary” role of internet in connection with civic participation, and I feel that this advertisement only exacerbates my skepticism. While blogs and websites exist that engage in discourse surrounding politics and widening political participation – unfortunately the quick slick video jabs grab the attention of traditional media formats. What this advertisement illustrates is that now everyone can participate in political slander – while still only a minority participate and promote actual discussion. If only De Vellis spent such time addressing actual issues and not creating hyperbolic depictions of the upcoming elections – maybe then the internet buzz (as well as the internet as a media forum) could live up to such rhetoric as truly “revolutionary.”

  • Katherine said:

    Strangely enough, I have overheard (ok, eavesdropped) on several conversations over the past week about this ad! It’s certainly getting attention, though I cannot know how otherwise politically involved the overheard conversers are.

    As for increasing participation, it is interesting that MySpace has launched Impact (http://impact.myspace.com/) an area on their site for the upcoming Presidential election, in order to increase awareness amongst the MySpace demographic. However, it seems to provide for little user-generated content, instead linking to candidates’ pages, and supposedly soon offering a way for supporters to donate to the campaigns. If they can get the MySpace crowd to shell out to a political campaign, I’ll be impressed.

  • Richard Edwards said:

    While I find myself in general agreement with many of Chuck’s points, and share his skepticism, I do think that user-generated content might have an impact this election cycle. For me, what is most interesting about this ad is how it entered into the political discourse. Traditionally, this type of media work (which operates along the lines of guerrilla video work from the 1970s, or Adbusters or Moveon.org work of the last decade, to name just a couple of examples) would have been relegated to the margins of mainstream political discourse and dismissed by newspaper columnists and TV pundits alike. The fact that this ad is considered worthy of extended discussion is an important shift to note, since this type of video remix has been used to attack Bush vigorously most of his presidential term and those videos have seldom been written about or discussed in the mainstream.

    I find it interesting that alot of energy is being spent on the meaningless work in my opinion of trying to discover the real identity of the ad’s producer (which apparently is now known) and whether that person has ties to the Obama campaign. This signals to me that commentators don’t really have a new discursive frame with which to evaluate this object, so they are falling back on talking points that were more relevant in a previous era of campaign-financed media commercials.

    However, for me, what I like in considering impact in this context is that in an era of spin and the careful crafting of campaign messages by high paid media operatives, this object provokes questions that I think exceed what either candidate (Obama or Clinton) wanted to talk about this early in the campaign season. And it seems to me that while there won’t be a clear winner or loser due to the creation of this ad, the emphasis yet again of Hillary Clinton as Big Sister (which was a popular trope of right-wingers in the 1990s when Hillary was first lady) cannot help her in her drive to be seen as the real alternative to the present administration. The narrative of the ad has space for only one revolutionary action, and that action is associated with Obama (especially the new Apple O Logo) which also gives Obama a bit of a “Think Different” vibe, which again shouldn’t hurt him politically.

  • Richard Edwards said:

    I appreciate Chuck’s take on this video and it gave me much to think about. I think I have a stronger belief than Chuck does that user-generated content can have impact in this upcoming election. This viral attack ad has generated a large amount of discussion, especially among newspaper columnist and TV pundits. This is in sharp distinction to how this type of remix work previously has been addressed (or in most cases, not addressed). For example, President George W. Bush has been subject to numerous video remixes, many with greater uses of digital creativity than the “1984″ ad, and almost none of those remix activities have attracted any mainstream visibility. The fact that this video remix did reach a large audience, I think speaks to a new awareness of user-generated content and the explosive growth of Web 2.0 participatory culture in 2007. But in terms of political activism, this type of media object is hardly unique, and has connections to guerrilla video of the 1970s or the culture jamming work of Adbusters or Moveon.org of the last decade, to just quickly name a few examples. So we do need to take note that this video has achieved an enviable visibility and that will probably cause other video producers to create similar forms of remixes.

    The anxiety around “authorship” in regards to this video also intrigues me. Many video remixes remain, purposely, unsigned works. Usually it is the mix that is signed, a lot of this work, especially work involving copyrighted mash-ups, remains purposefully unsigned for legal reasons but also cultural reasons where the mix is the thing, not the creator’s attribution. The need for mainstream media to attach to the “authorship” question strikes me as an older analytical position, where the mainstream discursive frame is better suited to more traditional forms of attack ads (such as those officially sanctioned and produced on the behalf of campaigns, where the authorship concern ultimately ties back to the candidate who “approved” the ad).

    But in addition to that point, I think that while this video does not radically reconfigure the framing of either candidate (Obama or Clinton), the video did serve as a discursive hub that exceeded the messages that either candidate could control. And I find this maneuver worthy of extended investigation (and try to understand how this type of remix might aid alternative media efforts) in an era of presidential campaigns dominated by fund-raising totals and the sanctioned spins of highly paid political operatives working for each campaign. But it is hard to look at the message of this video and feel that it helps Hillary Rodham Clinton. The portrayal of Clinton as “Big Sister” was a favored trope of right-wing activists who attacked her in the 1990s while she was First Lady, and this video revives that discourse and its associated connotations. Futhermore, another image that has been propagated from this video is the Apple logo reconfigured as an Obama logo, which I would argue produces favorable connotations of Obama as the candidate who “thinks different” or “acts different.”

  • Chuck said:

    Thanks for the comments, Kristen and Katherine. I’ll respond to them in more detail later, but I just wanted to mention Richard Edwards’ analysis of the “Vote Different” video on MediaCommons.

  • Chuck Tryon said:

    Rich, thanks for these useful comments. I tried to leave a little more wiggle room in my conclusion for the value of user generated content, but apparently that sentiment didn’t come across. The video certainly allegorically represents a general dissatisfaction with “politics as usual,” which might also be articulated as “media as usual.” And Katherine is right to take note of the discussion the video has provoked.

    I’m still not convinced that the videos in question radically reshape perceptions of Obama and Clinton in that Clinton has already become deeply associated with Big Sister imagery, especially in the right-wing attack on her health care proposal (note Kristen’s comments the video’s use of hyperbole). But my skepticism seems to have overshadowed my simultaneous fascination with the video (and the discussions that have framed it).