Jon Huntsman’s strange viral video strategy

at 03:37 PM ET, 12/01/2011

In their latest video, three daughters of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman rap insults about the rest of the GOP presidential field to the tune of Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack.” Seriously, watch it.

It’s funny, although not as good as their mustache-heavy parody of the smoking Herman Cain ad last month. The videos have gotten lots of attention.

Liddy, Abby and Mary Anne Huntsman are on cable news constantly; their @Jon2012girls Twitter account has 15,608 followers. The mustache video got 306,432 views.

“We are shamelessly promoting our dad like no other candidate’s family ever has,” says Mary Anne in the mustache video.

But silly attacks on rivals might not be the best strategy for the candidate who’s pitching himself as the sane adult in the room.

Viral videos may catch fire online, but they rarely seem to translate into votes. Videos did not get voters excited about the campaign of former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. Nor did they help Christine O’Donnell or Carly Fiorina.

And building buzz has never been Huntsman’s problem. 

An excess of praise in the mainstream media — including a lavish profile of the Huntsman family in Vogue — might have actually helped doom the candidate. A series of over-the-top ads showing the candidate (well, a stunt double) riding a motorcycle through the Utah desert only made his actual announcement look more dull. Tweets criticizing other Republicans on global warming and evolution took off — and alienated the GOP base.

The campaign itself has been unnerved at times by the Huntsman daughters’ jokes — for example, when they dinged Romney on Twitter for only visiting China once, adding, “Panda Express doesn’t count.”

The latest video apparently took at least some campaign staff by surprise. “They’ve kind of gone rogue,” said one source with knowledge of the campaign.

"The video was produced without authorization,” said a longtime Republican close to the campaign. “The girls were asked by a number of campaign officials to not release the video. The campaign was not informed of the release of the video. The video does not have a disclaimer and is not a campaign product.”

The spots go against the imposing image Huntsman himself has tried to project. The day before the “SexyBack” video came out, Huntsman himself was talking about the need to “stay focused on the issues that really do matter.”

On the other hand, the serious strategy hasn’t done much for Huntsman so far. The visibility of his daughters is a reminder that Huntsman, who can come off stiff in person, is a human being.

“The videos are great,” said J.P. Freire, a  senior communications strategist with New Media Strategies. “Whoever is doing this knows that content people would enjoy watching is one of the first steps to getting your message out.” 

Recent polls show Huntsman at 8 or 9 percent in New Hampshire — not great, but far better than he’s doing nationally. (He might not even qualify for the next Iowa debate.) Given the strange way this race is playing out, he could conceivably get another shot. 

As conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote today, Huntsman can easily argue that he is more conservative and more electable than former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

If he does, it will be because of the weak field, improving debate performances and a focus on retail politics (as discredited as they are this cycle). The Huntsman girls? Not so much.

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