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Shame Works, But Funny Gets Forwarded: MoveOn's "Non-Voter" Ad Might Be Most Viral Political Video Ever

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, November 7 2008

"In just a few short days, this private citizen has become a national pariah," intones the blown-dry anchor. Cut to sweet looking older woman, who is less sanguine: "I waited in line five hours to vote, with an arthritic hip, and this mother-[expletive] [expletive] lazy [expletive] couldn't get of bed in time to vote?"

MoveOn's sassy video that cast you as the sole American who deprived Barack Obama the White House was almost unavoidable in the days before the election. The organization reports that it has been viewed more than 21 million times, putting it in the ballpark of being the single most viral video of the year (and perhaps of all time), alongside Will.i.am's "Yes We Can," released in February.

Once customized with a name, the video shames the offender in various ways: on a church sign ("All God's Children All Welcome...Except for Nancy Scola"), in scrawled graffiti slams ("Nancy=Loser"), and in the utter disappointment of a Mongolian goat herd ("I cannot believe Nancy would allow this to happen. I am worried John McCain will bomb my goats.") The total effect is, frankly, good comedy.

I spoke with MoveOn's Peter Koechley, a former Onion writer who splits his time between Brooklyn and New Haven. The strategy behind the ad was, says Peter, rooted in social science, advances in Flash, and some well developed funny muscles.

An eye-catching fake "Channel 3 News spot" announcing the candidacy of a surprise presidential candidate (again, you) circulated a few months back. That started the MoveOn team thinking about the power of video tools that let anyone slot their name into the action.

And a compelling study in the February issue of American Political Science Review by Yale's Alan Gerber and Donald Green and University of Northern Iowa's Christopher Larimer found that revealing the identities of non-voters to their communities during a 2006 Michigan primary race substantially boosted voter turnout.

Powerful social science research, sure. But making good political use of public shaming is not without risks. In October, the Nashville-based Tennessee Tribune angered many in its largely African-American reader base by publishing of the names and home addresses of non-voting registered voters.

So Peter and MoveOn applied an Onion-like twist to shame: social pressure without all that crippling public embarrassment. "We wanted to raise the specter of shame and humiliation," says Peter, "[but] to make the pressure go down easier, we decided to make it funny."

"We knew we had a million-plus young people on our list," he says -- some 1.2 million, in fact. "And we suspected that they would be voting. But we knew that they had a lot of people in their social networks who wouldn't be. So we wanted something with virality baked in."

It seems to have worked. MoveOn initially sent the video to 3.5 million members of their 4.5 million-name mailing list. Some 15.6 million people went to the CNNBC site to send it to their friends. With a good dose of amazement in his voice, Peter notes that, at some points just before election day, he watched server logs as videos were sent at a rate of 40 or 50 times a second.

I asked Peter, who joined up with MoveOn a year ago to serve as its director of expansion, if we're witnessing a change in tone on the part of the organization. During the primary season a "General Betrayus" ad that ran in the New York Times on the eve of David Petraeus' congressional testimony that struck even some partisans on the left as shrill and over the line.

By contrast, MoveOn of the general election is this silly "Non-Voter" ad and a playful "Partnership for a McCain Free White House" website featuring winsome twenty-somethings Blake Lively and Penn Badgley of "Gossip Girl." ("Are your parents thinking about voting for McCain? It's time to have 'The Talk.'")

Peter doesn't see it that way. "The content fell out of the strategy," he says. "We knew we needed to turn out millions and millions of young people" as election day approached.

And as for the foul-mouthed older woman with the arthritic hip whose denunciation is enough to make one blush, Peter says they thought about tempering it, knowing that it might offend. In the end, though, he says, "we decided that being actually funny was better."