Watching Big Sister

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By Jose Antonio Vargas and Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

It's the first viral attack ad of the 2008 presidential campaign: a clever idea, visually arresting images, the sound of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's voice and, all too fittingly in this YouTube age, an anonymous filmmaker.

The 74-second spot has been viewed more than a million times online, making it far more popular than any of the official videos posted by the presidential contenders. It's a "mash-up" of Ridley Scott's 1984 Super Bowl commercial that portrayed IBM as an Orwellian Big Brother and introduced Apple's Macintosh as the bright new vanguard of computing. But now it's Big Sister, Clinton, vs. the upstart, Sen. Barack Obama.

Interspersed with speeches from videos on Clinton's official site, the clip shows a horde of ghostlike followers droning on. It closes with an altered Apple symbol -- the Apple's now an O -- and the Web address BarackObama.com.

And just as the young blond athletic woman in the video causes a massive explosion by hurling a sledgehammer at a giant screen with Clinton's image, this ad's reach blows up any notion that candidates and mainstream media outlets can control the campaign dialogue. Especially online.

Obama campaign officials say they have nothing to do with it. The senator called it "pretty extraordinary" on CNN Monday night. Apple Computer declined to comment. Clinton said she liked having attention diverted from the oft-viewed clip of her off-key rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The video's creator -- who claims on YouTube to be 59 years old and goes by the name ParkRidge47 -- isn't talking.

The clip, titled "Vote Different" and posted on YouTube on March 5, is one of the most watched on the video-sharing site. On Monday it had more than 500,000 views. By yesterday, after a day of mainstream media attention, it had passed a million, with text comments and video responses pouring in. Online pundits agree that it's a brilliant piece of agitprop, expertly produced.

Said Mike Krempasky of the Edelman public relations firm, who blogs on the conservative site RedState.com: "One of the reasons it's so good is that it's really creative and entertaining. People look at it and say, 'Wow, that's really cool.' If we find out that this was some college kid who lives in the Bronx, it's going to teach people a lesson: Anybody can be a producer here."

And that fact, said Micah Sifry of TechPresident.com, which tracks the candidates online, "shows that voter-generated content is going to be the wild card of 2008. It should strike fear in the hearts of traditional political consultants because it shows that you don't need lots of money to make a viral message spread."

Jeff Jarvis, the veteran journalist who examines online video through his site PrezVid.com, said the YouTube clip is analogous to the television ad paid for by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who parlayed a modest television buy into a media firestorm for Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004. The difference is, Jarvis pointed out, the group of Vietnam veterans were upfront about their identity.

"There are a lot of things happening here, and it's all about identity and trust and anonymity. So was this attack made by Obama's campaign? They say it's not. But then who?" Jarvis said. "Anonymity is a part of the Internet. But the problem now is attacks could come from anywhere, and I fear that we're going to have more and more Swift Boating. With the help of the Web, it's low-cost and easily spreadable."

For David Weinberger, former senior Internet adviser to Howard Dean and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, the video is a "meta-comment" of the Clinton campaign.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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