In his book The Performance of Politics, Jeffery Alexander discusses the idea that everything political actors do is a performance. Political actors, which I will use in a broad sense to include people involved in social movements and interest groups, perform on many more stages today than they did 10 years ago. Performances continue to take place on traditional stages like rallies and speeches and on television as debates, news and other public appearances. The creation of social media has given political actors a new place to perform. Social media allows political actors to reach possible supporters and voters with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger. One of the biggest stages political actors are seen on today is YouTube. On this stage performances can be targeted to people based on information gathered about them as well as other performances are given for the general public with a quick search.
YouTube has created an outlet for the average person to voice their political opinions via the Internet. The logical thought here is this would transfer to political advertising, but this has not been the case. “Content produced by ordinary citizens was rare and undistinguished in 2008” (Klotz, p. 152). The traditional YouTube advertisement tends to still mirror TV ads and is produced by the usual players involved in political advertising. “Klotz also found little of the creativity with formats that some have speculated that YouTube would unleash. For instance, three-fourths of the most popular videos were 30 seconds in length.” Although YouTube hasn’t quite allowed political advertising to be taken over by average people, it has allowed for a different kind of political advertising. A recent change in political advertising was unveiled starting with the Kony 2012 video.
The Kony 2012 video lasts approximately 30 minutes and has over 85.5 million views. The Kony 2012 video was a YouTube documentary that went viral when it was posted by the co-president of Invisible Children. The video was created to bring awareness about the situation in Rwanda and to “make Kony famous.” Another example of political advertising that was similar to the Kony 2012 video was the YouTube documentary created by President Obama’s campaign called “The Road We’ve Traveled.” This video is about 17 minutes long and reflects on President Obama’s term in office and wants people to remember what it was like voting in the 2008 election. President Obama’s video has almost 2 million views.
Despite the fact that these two videos were created in the traditional method political advertisements are made, they are anomalies when compared to other political ads on YouTube and in general. First, they are much longer than the average political ad with only 21.6% of ads created by a candidate in 2008 being longer than five minutes (Ridout). Second, they both have more of a documentary feel to them and provide the viewer with more substantive information. Third, these videos, so lengthy are attracting a huge viewing through YouTube. YouTube has not released how their views are officially counted, but regardless these videos are being viewed by large amounts of people. What exactly it is that draws people to sit and watch these videos?
I have found two explanations for this. First, a lack of in-depth coverage of issues seen on Twitter and broadcast news is driving people to sit and watch these videos. More information is exactly what they want. In a time when discourse is being criticized for being placed into 140 characters and short news clips, these longer videos have managed to break through and get people to watch them, and they are not just being watched they are receiving a million plus views. Instead of getting only pieces of information from a news story and having to research the issue further on their own, they get all the information from one video. The Kony video gives viewers an in-depth overview of the issue in Rwanda and the several organizations that are focused on this cause. As for President Obama’s video, it gives a summary of Obama’s first term in office while highlighting the accomplishments of his presidency. By spending the time watching these videos viewers get a more holistic view of the issues being discussed and don’t have to look elsewhere for information.
The second is that people are seeking information through entertainment. This has always been an element of political advertising and news, but these videos take it a step further. Instead of catching viewer’s attention with a sharp attack on their opponent, the latest controversy or touching on an emotion in 30 seconds, these videos draw you in and make you want to sit and watch the entire video because they are designed to mimic movies. There are even trailers of both of these videos on YouTube. Also, as in movies there are celebrities in these videos and they put on a performance. This form of political advertising allows for the creators of the video to show themselves or their cause in the best light possible in a contained environment. Essentially these videos are used to let political actors give their best performance yet with a point.
Will this continue to be a trend in political advertising? Will the future republican nominee create their own YouTube documentary for the general election? This will remain to be seen. As for now YouTube continues to bring political actors to center stage and allows them to give influential and maybe even election winning performances to viewers all around the world and encompassing a sense of entertainment with each. Roll credits now.