In 1984, Apple changed the world of computing by airing a television commercial portraying an Orwellian scene in which an image of Big Brother (IBM) was smashed to bits by a sledgehammer-wielding woman. This year, that same ad — slightly altered and never aired on television — is being used to smash the playbook of political tactics.
"This ad was not the first citizen ad, and it will not be the last," wrote the creator of the anti-Hillary Clinton "Vote Different" ad that swept the political blogosphere and even made it to the Today show. The National Journal magazine called it "a creative wonderpiece."
The creator is Phil de Vellis. He is a veteran of the Howard Dean presidential campaign and its wunderkind Internet operation. He worked for a Democratic online consulting company, but he said he created "Vote Different" on his own, at home, on a Mac laptop. How appropriate.
De Vellis posted the spot on YouTube, under the snickering and anonymous screen name of ParkRidge47 (the year and city in which Clinton was born), sent a link to several prominent political bloggers, and sat back and watched the buzz grow.
And so the political virus spread. By late last week, nearly 2.4 million people were infected. "Vote Different" is not the first example of viral marketing being used in politics, but it may represent its coming of age.
For those who haven't seen the ad (you can find it on YouTube.com if you search there for "Hillary" and "1984," if Apple lawyers haven't had it yanked down by now), here's a brief description:
The camera follows the same sledgehammering runner as she leads police into a building with gray-clad drones, but it is Hillary Clinton — not Emmanuel Goldstein — that they are watching. Sen. Clinton is giving her "Conversation about our country" speech as the woman hurls the sledgehammer, shattering the screen and freeing the proles. The text scrolls up, "On January 14th, the Democratic primary will begin. And you'll see why 2008 won't be like '1984.'" The screen fades to black with the Apple logo transformed into an "O" for Barack Obama. His website address appears below.
It is a powerful message.
But the virus, once unleashed and out of the control of either campaign, can have unintended consequences. De Vellis lost his job (he says he resigned; his employer, Blue State Digital, says he was fired); Obama's campaign was put on the defensive about whether it had any hand in the ad, since it employed Blue State and has one of the firm's founders on the campaign payroll; and Clinton was left to joke that she was glad "Vote Different" overshadowed another YouTube video of her butchering the National Anthem.
Just as assassins like Lee Harvey Oswald have shown that one person can change the course of history, the ad shows that an individual with relatively few resources now has the power to change the course of an election. OK, De Vellis is no John Wilkes Booth, but "Vote Different" does suggest destruction of a candidacy. This ad — or some later one — could wield the power to do just that.
"The 2008 election will be the first where the Internet will play a central role, not only in terms of how the campaigns use technology, but also in how voter-generated content affects its course," say the founders of TechPresident.com, a left-leaning collection of bloggers, consultants and Internet techies that is an offshoot of the Personal Democracy Forum.
We've already seen a bit of the viral in Tampa Bay campaigns. Mary Mulhern used e-mail to distribute an attack against incumbent Shawn Harrison in her successful race for Tampa City Council this month.
The initial e-mail blast started with 600 people but quickly grew to more than 1,000 — and those are only the ones that the campaign knows about. It is not known how many times the ads were forwarded to friends of friends of friends. But, campaign manager Mitch Kates said, it worked to make Mulhern look strong.
"We validated ourselves with it," he said, "and people believed that we had a real chance."
So get your laptops primed and your e-mail lists stacked, because, as de Vellis wrote on Huffington Post, "The game has changed."