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[BackChannel] Of Online Ads, Arun Chaudhary Asks: What Would P.T. Barnum Do?

BY Arun Chaudhary | Wednesday, November 7 2012

Arun Chaudhary was the White House's first videographer. In March, he became senior vice president of communications at Revolution Messaging, the progressive mobile strategy firm.
BackChannel an ongoing series of guest posts from practitioners and close observers at the intersection of technology and politics that, taken in aggregate, form a running conversation about the future of campaigns and government.

Before the conventional wisdom on this election becomes a cakey paste not unlike the makeup on a local journalist doing the midnight standup in an Applebee’s parking lot across from the Ohio Board of Elections in Columbus, I have a modest proposal for 2016.

No more campaigning. Touching voters, all the crap. Instead we’re going to put on a show.

Suppose that the standard 30-second political television ad is DOA. I’m not the only one to make such a claim, for too long we’ve collectively assumed that TV ads are the cornerstone of any successful political campaign; they’re certainly the greatest expense. In 2012, more 30-second ads were shown on more TV stations across America than ever before. GOP operatives have been buying airtime in Pennsylvania not because they believed it was miraculously changing into a real swing state, but because there was simply no airtime left in battleground states.

But where’s the real data that proves the supremacy of TV ads in a political campaign? Like Freud attempting his earliest explanations of the human mind, political consultants simply put themselves on the couch. “I watch TV, I see the commercials,” they thought. “If the commercial is any good, I sometimes even buy the product.” And nothing beats a captive audience of millions… right?

Before my reincarnation as an adman in this election cycle, I was Candidate/President Obama’s videographer. I shadowed the President with a video camera to showcase his authentic personality with intimate, behind-the-scenes footage. (Yes, it was the greatest job ever; you can read more about it HERE.) Like the high-paid consultants churning out those all too familiar 30-second spots, I also knew my material would be seen by millions—but not because my audience was captive. On the contrary: The people who watched my videos were actively seeking them out.

Having a compelling candidate definitely gave us the right foundations, but through creative programming we were able to invite people into a customized video experience rather than finding out where they were trapped and Clockwork Orange-style beaming our message into their vulnerable brains. The Future, courtesy of OFA!

Of course, these developments didn’t occur in a vacuum. The 2008 Obama campaign ran a truckload of traditional television ads. But in an age where more people had learned how to avoid television commercials — not just by getting up to get a beer from the fridge, but by fast-forwarding with the help of DVRs TiVOs, or simply watching content traditionally reserved for televisions on other devices — folks were looking for new answers.

Everywhere I looked, political programming beyond the traditional scope of TV ads seemed to be flourishing. The Obama campaign and White House were constantly making mini-documentaries and newsreels, and even conservatives like Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee were getting into the act with reality TV shows and cartoons that contained political content. But the essential difference remained the same: all of it was content that people actually wanted to watch.

When I left the White House to make ads for PACs and SuperPACs as part of the re-election effort in the post Citizens United world, I assumed that people would want novel ideas and formats, ads that were either compelling enough for viewers to watch online, or compelling/controversial enough for TV stations to run for free.

But more often than not, consultants who were nervously watching the diminishing efficacy of television advertising — and perhaps even the demise of network television — were most interested in hearing about those aspects of the Internet that most closely mimicked TV. That is, those spaces on the Internet where you still have a captive audience, maybe even more captive than television viewers who had long ago figured out that walk-away- to-grab-a-beer trick.

Those spaces can be found in the seconds in between two Pandora songs where your likelihood of hitting mute is close to zero, or immediately before a YouTube cat video while you’re waiting for another video to load. I watch commercials on Hulu much more often than on the TV because the duration of the commercials is so short — 10 or 15 seconds max. I can maybe grab that beer, but do I want to take that chance?

So: TV is dead, but long live TV’s captive audience? My election-cycle ambitions — of GOP parodies of Heavy Metal Parking lot and a Real World spinoff with corporations living in a house together to “see what happens” — were mostly shelved to make room for the production of far more conventional 15-second Internet ads.

On their own, these ads aren’t bad. I’ve enjoyed making them very much. Making something so short crystal clear is an immense and satisfying challenge. And the fact that they are that short gives you, as the creative artist, a ready-made rebuke to every addition (and as we know, Democrats are fond of adding things).

These mini-ads obey all the same rules as other political media. In my opinion, they work best when they have an authentic core. The joy of it, the creative and intellectual thrill, is the same as runs through all art, matching content to form.

Check out this one about George Allen. It mimics an ad for a popular prescription pharmaceutical. We had a long list of reasons that George Allen was crappy for Virginia, so why not use the recognized form of a drug-free America ad, which is essentially a long and crappy list of side effects—so elegant, right?

But this isn’t what the folks with the money liked about this solution. They like that it’s a piece of your attention that they can still own, maybe one of the last. But how long is this trick going to last? How many presidential cycles till even the elderly and infirm know the shortcuts to getting around these ads, or until a new premium service delivers entertainment for free without the ads at all?

Also, you just have a certain grace period before people get mad, right? I know the people on the OFA Digital Strategy team pretty well, and while I haven’t coordinated or even commiserated with them this election cycle, I know they wouldn’t be sending all of those fundraising emails unless there was solid data indicating that they were working. And yet, I seriously doubt (or seriously hope) that any campaign will take that same all-out bombardment approach to campaign email again—seems like just another way of hampering long-term growth in favor of short-term gain. It could only make sense in a Presidential election, possibly only this Presidential election.

And that’s where my proposal comes in. Before the dust settles in the windowless office I work from with my small team on Rhode Island Avenue—complete with props (cowboy hats, whips, and model uteruses) that make the place look more like the aftermath of the bachelor party in Bachelor Party or the unknown sequel to Eyes Wide Shut than a political media shop—I’d like to suggest a new path.

Everyone knows that even while network TV is dying, we are living in a golden age of television on cable. People are hungry for real content. So why limit oneself to commercials, or even a show? I’m suggesting building an entire network with a little something for everyone: News programming, game shows, a telenovella, a variety of programs. In fact, a variety program itself would add an excellent touch of the vaudeville. But no commercials. All the shows would incorporate the information into the content or simply be sponsored. The Frank Sinatra Hour brought to you by Bulova watches would be The Frank Sinatra Hour brought to you by Adlai Stevenson.

What would consummate American eyeball-getter P.T. Barnum do? That’s right: make it awesome and people will come (and of course hide the exit). By housing all your exhibits in one museum, people will know where to go to consume the information they want. There’d be no need to pay for expensive network time, put the whole thing on YouYube. The cash can go straight to the content. Put the whole damn thing on the YouTube.

In the political arena, I can already hear the complaints — but you’ve got to go out to where the votes are, with all the echoes of the famous bank robber Willie Sutton, who said, “I rob banks because that’s where the money is.” I disagree, and so does Jack Abramoff. He stole a lot more cash than Willie by allowing it to come to him, rather than the other way around.

But still, grafting these concepts into a new political paradigm is going to cost a lot of money. But I know where it can come from. Now that our amazing content has drawn all these eyeballs to our Political Candidate Network, we can take all the money that used to go into carting the candidate around willy-nilly from state to state talking to voters, getting mustard on their shirts, and generally making horrible gaffes and put it to good use hiring jugglers and other top-notch acts.

This idea actually has solid foundations in American politics—just look at the successful front porch campaigns the Republicans ran in the 1880s and ’90s. Pioneered by Benjamin Harrison for James Garfield, and later used very successfully for Harrison’s own run against Grover Cleveland, the front porch campaigns were not a contrast in the industriousness of traveling versus the sloth of simply staying at home. It was the idea that the pageantry of a traveling campaign like President Cleveland’s was less effective than a series of targeted political messages on all the relevant issues of the day released from the candidates front porch and transmitted directly to the people through the newspapers. In other words, the average voter in 1888 knew more about Benjamin Harrison’s positions than Grover Cleveland’s even though she had a much better chance of catching a Cleveland speech.

But the Internet shouldn’t be used as a mere extension of the failing medium that is TV. It should — like my work on the 2008 campaign and later in the White House did — provide both intimacy and information on the YouTubes, so I think stealing a couple hundred million to make sure our network has the absolute best in special effects and talent would be well worth the investment and would be a much better bang for one’s buck than the horrendous dreck that Sheldon Adelson orders up for CrossRoads GPS.