YouTube? It's So Yesterday

By Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu
Sunday, November 5, 2006

Sen. John McCain made a brief appearance as himself in the 2005 Hollywood comedy "Wedding Crashers," a movie that online gossip Matt Drudge dubbed a "boob raunch fest." The Los Angeles Times opined that it was "perhaps not the most predictable showcase" for the Arizona Republican, and critics forecast a public-relations disaster. But McCain was just ahead of his time.

Far from backfiring, the cameo netted the senator some invaluable face time as he prepares for a 2008 presidential run. And imagine how many more millions will catch his performance as the movie replays on DVDs in U.S. homes over the next two years.

The senator said he did the movie "to impress my kids." But his decision displayed an understanding that the ways in which politicians reach voters are changing yet again. Political blogs got the ball rolling a few years ago, and this election is the season of YouTube, as campaign ads migrate to the popular online video site.

But there's more -- much more -- to come. As politicians scrounge for elusive voters in every corner of the land, they're likely to start using technology ever more inventively to help them in the search. And some of it, frankly, may not be pretty.

Political placement.

With fewer viewers watching campaign ads on TV -- thanks to Tivo, iTunes and Netflix -- politicians will soon have no choice but to place themselves and their messages directly into popular shows, movies and video games. There'll be more McCain-style political cameos, as well as campaign ads on buses or buildings in the background of popular shows.

After that? Maybe political parties will fund shows that send their message. Think: " 'Grey's Anatomy.' Brought to You by the Democratic Party. We Put Health Care First." In time, the fictional characters themselves may be delivering the political messages. "You know," Sawyer of ABC's "Lost" might say, "Congress really should give Verizon a national cable franchise."

Corporate data meet political data.

What took political candidates so long to figure out that electronic data is power? Harrah's Casino had the e-mail addresses of 28 million Americans in 2005, far outstripping the databanks of both political parties. But, led by the Republicans, the parties have finally caught on to the wonders of corporate data and microtargeting, and they'll only get better at it.

As the saying goes, you can't please all of the people all of the time, but great data-mining sure helps. If a guy like former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani knows that you're a libertarian (thanks to your subscription to Reason magazine and your support for legalizing marijuana), his campaign can stress tolerance for gays and abortion rights. But if the data detect that you own a Hummer, out comes the 9/11 package. The politicians of the future -- Giuliani, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and others -- will be basing their voter pitches first and foremost on likability. Better data-mining will help make sure you like them, whatever your politics.

With better corporate data, instead of "Swing-vote Soccer Moms," data managers will be examining the persuasion habits of "Abercrombie & Fitch Republicans," and the particular unreliability of "Shrek Democrats." Most useful of all: detailed reports about the moods, smells and sounds most likely to make disaffected independents get out and vote.

'Second Life' politics.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company