The Newest Lobbying Tool: Underwear
It was inevitable. In the Internet age, interest groups seeking influence in Washington are joining presidential candidates in discovering a new electronic tool to press their agenda: YouTube.
"Send your underwear to the undersecretary'' urges the actress in the Competitive Enterprise Institute's stinging 66-second anti-regulatory video posted on YouTube, a free video-sharing site that is a subsidiary of Google. The video blames a 2001 Energy Department rule for an energy-efficiency standard that it says has made new models of washing machines more expensive while getting laundry less clean.
The underwear video illustrates what other advocacy groups are finding out: YouTube is a cheap, creative way to get a message to a potentially vast audience. This slow migration is in addition to more traditional lobbying approaches, such as direct mail, Web sites and scripted phone calls to federal officials.
"This is the next step,'' said Missi Tessier, a principal with the Podesta Group, a Washington lobbying firm. She said her company is working on a YouTube piece pushing for more federal funding for basic research for one client, the Science Coalition, a group of research universities. "We are always trying to find ways to get our message out.''
Concerned Families for ATV Safety, which wants to keep children off all-terrain vehicles, turned to YouTube to lobby for more federal oversight at the agency and congressional level. One of the parents produced the video and posted it May 18.
"We decided to put it on to raise awareness about how dangerous the machines are,'' said Carolyn Anderson of Brockton, Mass., who lost a son in an ATV accident and is a co-founder of the group.
Some of the presidential candidates already have calculated that YouTube postings will reach the same younger audience that regularly visits social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. A few federal agencies have taken the plunge, too.
Officials at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said it expects its YouTube messages to be ridiculed, laughed at, remade and spoofed. And they are. Its anti-drug message is also reaching the right demographic.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission realizes that YouTube would be a great way to broadcast product recall and safety messages, though it has not produced a video for it.
"There are a tremendous amount of people who use that Web site,'' said Scott Wolfson, an agency spokesman. "But we worried about the integrity of the message being changed by users.''
The YouTube audience hardly seems like a demographic that would be interested in washing-machine efficiency. Still, the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, which opposes energy-saving fluorescent bulbs and increasing the gas mileage of cars and trucks, has 43 videos on the site. Many of them are snippets of speeches and testimony with few user "hits."
And then there's the underwear video.