The Swift Boat tactic of 2008

Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. And so on … Forty-three years ago, brilliant ad maker Tony Schwarz and pioneering political consultant Joe Napolitan put the now-iconic “Daisy” ad on television. Once. The 30-second black-and-white spot featured a little girl pulling the petals off a daisy, counting each one, mixing up her numbers and all the while drawing us to her innocence. When she reaches the number nine, a metallic military voice takes over with the countdown to a missile launch as the little girl looks to the sky. The camera zooms in on her eye, then dissolves to a nuclear explosion as we hear the words of President Lyndon Johnson: “These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” Another voiceover then says, “Vote for President Johnson on Nov. 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

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The ad ran only once, but was replayed on news and talk shows and written on in countless newspapers, dominating political debate for weeks. The unspoken message that a President Goldwater might lead us to nuclear war was burned into America’s consciousness. The ad is still remembered as one of the most powerful pieces of political propaganda in history.

Until now. Someone has ripped off another iconic commercial that ran only once and turned it into a powerful political message now playing all over the blogosphere. The video clip is a take-off of the famous Ridley Scott Apple Computer commercial from 1984. Once again an image on a huge black-and-white screen speaks to an auditorium full of zombie-like characters. Only this time it is not Big Brother on the screen but Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) droning on about having a “conversation” with America. And once again an athletic young woman runs toward the screen carrying a huge sledgehammer. Only now the logo on her tank top has been modified to resemble the trademark of the Obama for President campaign. As in the original commercial, she spins and throws the hammer into the huge screen and Hillary’s image explodes into a graphic reading “On January 14th, the Democratic primary will begin. And you’ll see why 2008 won’t be like ‘1984.’” The piece ends by directing the viewer to the website of presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

About 1.5 million viewers have seen the ad. I have no idea how many have then gone to the Obama site, but hundreds of thousands are busily spreading the word about the video.

This is the most innovative and important use of viral videos to date in the 2008 campaign. It combines high production values with smart messaging. It reinforces a growing perception that candidate Clinton is scripted, packaged, cold and arrogant. Just as the “Daisy” ad did in 1964, this video strikes a responsive chord. It reinforces intuitive feelings that many voters already have. It validates a point of view. As Tony Schwarz knew, and frequently wrote about, that is the power of broadcast advertising. And it seems to be just as effective, if not more so, on the Web.

Viral videos could well redefine American politics in this election. They certainly had an impact in 2006, as former Virginia Sen. George Allen learned. Once his “macaca” comment appeared on YouTube, it exploded into a critical issue and energized now-Sen. Jim Webb’s campaign. Arguably that video snippet, filmed with a digital phone camera, was the tipping point that cost Allen his Senate seat — and a shot at the White House.

Whether “1984” redux will have the same impact on the Clinton campaign remains to be seen. But it has already launched at least one other anti-Hillary piece, as well as a counterattack on Sen. Obama. Viral videos will be the “Swift Boat” tactic of 2008. They can fly below the radar and do immense damage in a very short period of time. Candidates have yet to sort out exactly how to respond to these messages.

It is a somewhat tortured analogy, but these videos are like guerilla attacks on a conventional army. No one sees them coming, no one knows who launched them and no one has yet learned how to defend against them. Clinton and the other candidates had best figure out a strategy to deal with viral media, or these videos may deliver the messages that determine who captures the White House in this election.

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