How candidates use Web video

As a television guy I was struck with how good Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) weekend webcast looked. Unlike most Web videos, Clinton’s was rich in production values. The lighting was perfect — bathing the living room setting in warm, golden tones with a color-balanced lamp carefully placed over one shoulder and a glass-paneled door glowing with springtime-in-America greenery behind her. Her wardrobe was perfect. Her makeup was perfect. It was the sort of setting that we used to create with three trucks chock-full of dolly track, gels, scrims, HMIs and dozens of C stands holding lesser lights, silks and reflectors to set the scene for a 35mm camera and a crew of 30. A lot of high-end production for a webcast.

As a television guy I was struck with how good Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) weekend webcast looked. Unlike most Web videos, Clinton’s was rich in production values. The lighting was perfect — bathing the living room setting in warm, golden tones with a color-balanced lamp carefully placed over one shoulder and a glass-paneled door glowing with springtime-in-America greenery behind her. Her wardrobe was perfect. Her makeup was perfect. It was the sort of setting that we used to create with three trucks chock-full of dolly track, gels, scrims, HMIs and dozens of C stands holding lesser lights, silks and reflectors to set the scene for a 35mm camera and a crew of 30. A lot of high-end production for a webcast.

When I asked Clinton’s media guru, Mandy Grunwald, about all this, she, of course, played down the production. “Everything fit in the back of a station wagon,” she said, adding it was just a beautiful day and things looked wonderful. Uh-huh. As though a pro like Grunwald would ever shoot a candidate announcement with such casual attention to detail.

It was to be the first of a series of one-on-one “chats” with America’s voters. The senator has followed with three days of online “conversations” with carefully screened questions. According to Grunwald the campaign will be “open to everything and every way” to continue this conversation with the American people. All this to answer a challenge the campaign created months ago with the oft-repeated phrase that Clinton is “the most famous person in the world that no one knows.”

In other words, the campaign sees its first goal as re-defining Hillary Clinton. Whether it is a definition that will resonate with the American people is an open question. A lot of Hillary supporters like the hard-driving, tough-as-nails image and think she’s just adding confusion and re-enforcing the idea that she’s manipulative with this softer-side campaign. Well, all politicians are manipulative. Voters prefer not to be reminded of that, however. President Clinton was a natural at making you not notice or not care. It is possible that Hillary will be seen as trying too hard. If voters get that message, all it does is prove the point.

But I digress. This column is about the Web and how candidates are trying to use it in 2008. And, perhaps more importantly, how their consultants, who earned their stripes in the television era, are trying to figure out the Web.

Contrary to Hillary, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) appeared to have just plopped down in front of a webcam and started talking in his exploratory committee announcement. No tie. No sign of make-up (although I’m sure an artist was hovering just off-camera). A sterile, non-descript backdrop. Not the sort of setting any media consultant would have chosen in the days when television ruled campaigns. And that seemed to have been the point. Obama seems to have connected with bloggers and Web users to a greater degree than Clinton. In part that may be curiosity. But it was also the unvarnished, unrehearsed, unstaged nature of his video announcement that is driving more traffic to Obama’s website.

Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) is also experimenting with the Web as a communications tool. In his announcement, staged in the prime photo-op location of New Orleans’s Ninth Ward, Edwards created a guerilla-video feel for his announcement. The candidate leisurely wandered into a crowd and, at times, seemed swallowed up by it. We actually lost sight of him for brief snatches of time. Translation: He’s one of us. He never addressed the camera directly. It was our eye on the candidate giving the scene a natural, realistic feeling. We were there, part of the crowd, part of his crowd sharing a group experience.

In poking around the blog traffic of these three Web-based announcements, I kept in mind the first rule of focus groups taught to me by a pioneer pollster: “Listen to the music, not the words.” Well, the music I’m hearing is that the Web works better when the delivery is lower-tech, less polished and more personal. All the pundits and most politicians are saying the Web will be even more powerful in 2008. If so, candidates need to figure out how to use it. Video will be a powerful tool in that arsenal, but the polished look we learned in television may not be the way to use it.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail:
bgoddard@thehill.com