By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
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.
"We figured we would try a very fast, inexpensive campaign that would go viral," said Sam Kazman, general counsel at the CEI and head of its Death by Regulation project. The video went up May 16 and had 1,306 hits in the first week, a respectable showing, especially considering the subject matter.
Kazman said the campaign cost virtually nothing. He wrote the script and one employee did the acting and another filmed it.
The CEI Web site links to the video and to a June Consumer Reports magazine article that rated top- and front-loading washing machines for energy efficiency and performance. The magazine found that since the Energy Department issued an efficiency rule in 2001, the performance of various machines has varied widely.
"Not so long ago, you could count on most washers to get your clothes very clean," the article says. "Not anymore. Our latest tests found huge performance differences among machines. Some left our stain-soaked swatches nearly as dirty as they were before washing. For best results, you'll have to spend $900 or more.''
Kazman, who said he owns a 21-year-old Whirlpool washing machine, took this as confirmation that predictions his group made in 2001, that the rule would wreck a "low-priced, dependable home appliance," have come true.
The manufacturers of home appliances, energy-efficiency groups and regulators who are being mocked in the video disagree.
Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, deputy home editor at Consumer Reports, said the underwear campaign takes the ratings out of context. "We support energy standards for washing machines,'' she said. "There are alternatives that will wash as well as older machines. They cost more to buy but not to operate."
"I think it's obnoxious; I don't think this dog barks,'' said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project in Boston, a coalition of industry, consumer, environmental and state interests.
DeLaski, who was involved in the negotiations that led to the 2001 rule, said it was expected at the time that prices would go up but that consumers would save on utility bills.
"That's a regulation working pretty damn well," he said, adding that consumers can expect to save $80 annually on utility bills with the new models.
Michael McCabe, a senior engineer at the Energy Department, said that nine out of 10 models Consumer Reports tested are in the price range the department predicted when it issued the rule, an extra $250.
On the underwear front, Kazman said he sent his own (clean) underwear to the Energy Department. The department said the mailbox of Undersecretary Dennis R. Spurgeon is still empty.
Kazman blamed the late delivery on another government policy, which subjects packages to irradiation.