The Trouble With Political Videos

It was safe to assume that by now there would be numerous reinterpretations of the abrupt, clipped-off final scene of “The Sopranos.” It begs to be manipulated, mashed-up and parodied by the video-savvy merrymakers of the YouTube generation. But who could have predicted that presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton would be among those with her own Web riff?

Clinton’s campaign took to the Internet yesterday with a short spoof of the “Sopranos” scene, tailored to the former First Family. Hillary sits in a booth at a diner, mulling over the offerings in the booth’s jukebox. Bill breezes in and joins her, then is disappointed to learn that when she announces that she has “ordered for the table,” she’s referring to a basket of carrot sticks, not onion rings. All the while, there are cuts to the other customers in the diner, suggesting that they’re all waiting breathlessly for Hillary to find the right song. Naturally, this all leads up to that polarizing black screen, and viewers are told to hop over to Clinton’s campaign site to see which song she selected. (For anyone who cares, it’s Celine Dion’s slightly creepy “You and I,” an Air Canada jingle in a former life.)

Clinton’s video did precisely what a Web video is supposed to do—create buzz—but that attention won’t necessarily work in her favor. The era of Internet video offers presidential candidates an unprecedented opportunity to meet potential voters on their levels, and do it in a way that’s far more cost-effective than traditional advertising venues. The problem is that when candidates go the Web video route, it opens new channels of criticism that might not have existed otherwise, and a candidate’s efforts to appear loose, personable or self-deprecating can backfire.

Mitt Romney, for example, has “The Decision,” a mercilessly long documentary-style video of the Romney family during their Christmas vacation, narrated by Romney’s wife, Ann. The family is shown doing what any family would do during a vacation, and Ann goes into extreme detail about meeting Mitt, their marriage, and the family’s everyday life (they use a task wheel to divvy up chores!). This all leads up to what we’re told is an unscripted conversation among the family about Mitt’s decision to run for president. Mitt takes notes on a legal pad and directs the conversation as though he’s leading a focus-group discussion about a new bathroom cleaner, taking the family’s consensus on whether or not they think he should run. Surprise, they do. Says son Tagg: “It’d be a shame to not at least try, and if you don’t win, we’ll still love you!”

The goal, one would presume, of offering such a video is to show Mitt as a family man, allow viewers to connect with his family and show that Mormons are just like the rest of us. They even have a Christmas tree that looks about 30 feet tall. Unfortunately for Mitt, the video is labored and wooden, so instead of thinking Mitt is just like me, I now think he might be a robot, longing for a squeeze of oil on his hinges and longing to understand this thing we humans call love.

Herein lies the inherent problem of the Web video. The conventional wisdom on politicians is that they’re phonies, snake-oil salesmen and double-talkers. Yet being “real” doesn’t work for politicians, simply because when they try to cut loose—like Howard Dean’s banshee scream following the 2004 Iowa primaries—it’s grist for the mill for opponents and pundits. So political Web videos, nearly all of which are corralled at YouTube’s YouChoose ’08 channel, are the worst of both worlds. They attempt to be real, but instead, since we know reality exists in small doses in the all-spin-all-the-time world of politics, they don’t come off real, they just come off more fake.

Hillary’s “Sopranos” takeoff is actually not that bad. Sure it’s cheaply made and a little stilted (don’t expect to see Bill guesting on “Grey’s Anatomy” anytime soon) but it does pull off a few smiles, if not outright belly laughs. But did it succeed at showing Hillary in a new light? Did it convince anyone that she’s got an honest-to-goodness sense of humor, or that just maybe she’s got her finger on America’s pulse? I seriously doubt it. It seems naive to think that a modest YouTube video could accomplish such a feat, but judging from the rate at which they’re proliferating, ’08 candidates have taken the lyrics of Tony Soprano’s Journey swan song to heart. They won’t stop believing.