It started this summer, a wave of demented campaign ads that fell into the laps of lazy political bloggers like manna from heaven. Many went viral. But now the genre is killing itself by trying way too hard.
The latest aspiring viral video is Massachusetts congressional candidate Sean Bielat's attack ad, which features his opponent Barney Frank pulling disco moves and "dancing around the issues". We see it's got all the hallmarks of the classic viral political ad: A zany premise, unnecessary special effects, a controversial subtext (haw haw, gay Barney's a dancing queen!).
This video will probably make the rounds in the Left and Right blogosphere, but it will never reach the level of Dale Peterson's flag-draped opus. What we loved about the early viral campaign ads was how they took obscure candidates from Nowheresville, Alabama and catapulted them, for an Internet minute, into the national spotlight. Never mind that they were Tea Party nutjobs: it was this unexpected disruption of stodgy campaign dynamics that made these videos go viral.
But now virality has become the sole aim of craven political ad directors who are supplanting their subjects as the true stars of the game. The Times describes the rules in an article about the Barney Frank spot:
If everything goes according to plan, the ensuing videos... will catapult Mr. Bielat to online stardom, attract more mainstream news media coverage and donations, and bring him closer to a seat in Congress.
The Barney Frank ad was the brainchild of Ladd Ehllinger Jr. Ehllinger directed a number of this season's viral campaign ad sensations, and his ouvre offers a good case study for how viral campaign ads became victims of their own success. Earlier this summer, he created three of the genre's hallmarks: The Dale Peterson ad, a race-baiting spot for a black Alabama Tea Party congressional candidate, and the revisionist sketch that featured another Alabama Tea Party candidate delivering a locker room pep talk to the Founding Fathers.
These ads were so bad they were good, but Ehllinger's latest output is just bad. A Wizard of Oz-themed ad cast Nancy Pelosi as the Wicked Witch in the hopes of enraging Liberals with its sexist undertones; now the Barney Frank ad is trying, desperately, to catch the old viral magic. But it's gone forever! Where the earlier ads channeled their subjects' inner craziness, these new spots are crazy-for-crazy's sake, self-indulgent fantasies of their hack auteur who thinks he's figured out the secret to Internet virality.
But the game's up. Now that their code has been sequenced, the potency of these viral videos is basically zero. Ehllinger's Wicked Witch video has a little over 2,000 views on YouTube. The viral video candidates of the summer all lost, leaving only memories and a bunch of really stupid campaign ads.