Last week I learned that Texas Governor Rick Perry was embracing social media in an interesting kind of way in the run-up to his 2010 re-election bid. Take a look at this Perry personalized video ad.
In the ad Perry can be seen talking directly to a supporter; someone named Dennis. Apparently, Perry has hired a company to craft about 100,000 of these personalized videos. It’s politics version of Amazon.com’s, “since you bought this book we thought you might be interested in this one.”
According to the Perry campaign the videos are designed to create a more personal connection between the politician and voters. Elise Hue was doing a story for the Texas Tribune, a new non-profit news organization devoted to covering all things politics in Texas. Elise and I talked about the use of social media in political campaigns, the handling of politicians as products, and whether or not any of this is good for democracy. (You can watch her report here).
“So what are the implications for politics?” Elise asked me. “It’s a mixed bag,” I replied. Here is what I meant. It is clear that social media is, to quote author Michael Lewis, “the new, new thing” in politics. In the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election politicians of all stripes will be using social media. But how they use it certainly varies. Some use social media to raise money. Some use it to broadcast their message with great precision. Others use it to create a sense of intimacy and community. Needless to say, some social media strategies benefit democracy better than others.
One thing that we have learned about the migration to digital is that traditional hierarchies are being challenged like never before. Along the way, new kinds of relationships and conversations are emerging. Evidence of this is happening all around us as voters talk directly to candidates, news audiences to reporters, and students to teachers just to name a few examples. It’s no longer a one-way discussion. Conversation via social media is something that future generations of voters and candidates will assume. In a 2008 report titled, “Post-Election Voter Engagement,” the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that more than half, 51%, of then President-Elect Barack Obama’s supporters expected some form of communication from the new administration through social media including email, text messaging, or social network sites. Many of these voters expect to share conversations with the administration, too.
Politicians who cut their teeth on a very different media model–broadcast–are trying to adapt to the social media landscape. Whereas broadcast is top-down, passive, and one-to-many the social media model, at its best, is bottom-up, participatory, and peer-to-peer.
A few months ago we went out into the field with a new study. Part of the project considers to what extent the use of social platforms like Facebook develops a civic dimension. Just from some of the early data results I can tell you that social media is infiltrating just about every aspect of young people’s lives including their consumption of news and their engagement in civic life. Still, nothing in our research suggests that these kinds of targeted ads will resonate with young technology users.
The personal ads by the Perry campaign appear to be using social media techniques to deliver a broadcast style message. In short, new tools, same tactics. It is unclear if these videos encourage some of the signature features of today’s digital media culture like conversation, community, and sharing.
Meanwhile, the Perry personalized video is emblematic of what has long been troubling about the marriage between politics and modern media: the triumph of style over substance. This is not unique to our time; it dates back more than a century as the press and later, electronic images emerged as, arguably, the most powerful factors in American political culture.
The use of media to sell candidates to the voter has a long history in American politics but it turned an important corner in the 1960s. In 1969 a twenty-five year-old writer named Joe McGinnis wrote The Selling of the President: 1968. It became an instant classic. On the front of the book Richard Nixon appears on the cover of a cigarette box.
In the 1960s there was a growing recognition that the techniques used by cigarette makers to sell their product to American consumers were dubious at best. McGinnis made a similar argument about how political candidates are packaged and sold. Nearly forty years after publishing “The Selling of the President” McGinnis writes, “In the summer of 1968…I learned something nobody wanted the American public to know: The two presidential candidates, Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, had hired advertising agencies to package them like products and sell them to the American people.” Style mattered more than substance. Politicians, increasingly, were handled like consumer products and politics have never been the same. Democracy suffers as we see the blurring of the lines between selling cigarettes and selling politicians, performing and governing. In the digital age shouldn’t we expect a different kind of ethics in politics?
America’s experiment with democracy is entering a new era in the age of social media. What we must demand from candidates is that they use social media to encourage engaged citizenship, community, and dialog rather than as the latest tool to sell tested sound bites and packaged candidates at a time when bold and visionary leadership is needed now more than ever.