Gary Johnson Had the Most Viral Ad of the 2016 Election. Was It All for Nothing?

The super PAC behind 'Dead Abe Lincoln' assesses today's fallout

First the good news: A wacky digital video starring "Dead Abe Lincoln" that stumps for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson has logged upwards of 18 million views and 420,000 shares in two weeks, introducing potential voters to the former New Mexico governor and the movement to land him a spot in the upcoming presidential debates.

And now the bad news: Johnson turned into a trending topic and a hashtag on Thursday after a disastrous appearance on MSNBC's Morning Joe in which he asked, "And what is Aleppo?" in response to a question about conflict in the Syrian city.

So, what if you're Matt Kibbe, founder and president of Alternative PAC, the Johnson supporter behind the hit viral video? Do you fold up the tent and go home, assuming the candidate has inadvertently taken himself out of serious consideration? Or do you stay the course, believing the gaffe will blow over like so many other election-cycle foot-in-mouth mistakes?

Kibbe, a Washington, D.C.-based political veteran, is choosing the latter for the time being, telling AdFreak, "When the shit hits the fan, you know it's going to get fun." And he's opting for a sense of humor in light of the Twitter explosion and #WhatIsAleppo hashtag.

"If your candidate is failing, nobody cares if he makes a mistake," says Kibbe, who formed the super PAC a few months ago to promote the third-party Balanced Rebellion platform. "I hope SNL does a bit on it. That will be market penetration that Gary hasn't had yet."

Read on for more of our conversation with Kibbe just hours after the Morning Joe debacle.

What was your initial reaction to Gary's TV blunder?
He's now significant enough that people are going to start beating up on him. I think that's a step in the right direction. The biggest challenge for a third-party candidate is getting people to know you exist. And I think he's done a public service because thousands of people are now Googling 'Aleppo' so their smart-aleck friends don't embarrass them at the bar tonight.

How do you recover as a fervent Johnson supporter?
In any presidential campaign, your candidate will make a flub, even when they're supposed to know the answer. It's inevitable. How they react to it is everything, and I like the way Gary reacted. Candidates typically say, "I didn't hear the question" or "That was a gotcha situation." Gary said, "I blew it, but I'll get it right next time." It's honest. You'll never hear Donald Trump say, "I don't know." He'll give you an answer anyway. A little bit of honesty and humility may go a long way.

How do you recover as a marketer?
It will depend on whether this story has legs. If it's a 12-hour story, then it won't matter. If we're all still talking about this next week, then we'll need to get more aggressive. His foreign policy generally is a powerful talking point, especially with disaffected Bernie Sanders voters. It could turn into an opportunity to talk about his alternative views.

What's your focus now?
We're concentrating on the debate commission, which is run by Democrats and Republicans, that makes it almost impossible for a third-party candidate, whether Libertarian or Green Party, to get into the presidential debates. People should really be making a stink of this because the commission needs to adapt to the new normal, which is more voices. That should mean we have more choices. We're also geotargeting in the seven or eight states where Gary is polling well.

Talk about the ROI on "Dead Abe Lincoln," produced by the Harmon Brothers, that's helped you raise more than $1 million in donations since its launch.
We invested about $200,000 in social marketing so far, and 62 percent of our views have been organic, and 38 percent from paid media. That's an amazing return. And we're especially pleased with the 420,000 shares because that's the real measure of whether your content is compelling.

Will social media continue to be your avenue of choice?
In the past, you'd have to spend $50 million on TV ads to break the barrier, but Gary Johnson has performed well without that. This video is more viral than anything Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump has done. This is a disruptive time, and the future is all about the ability of a candidate to engage in popular culture through social media. A third-party candidate is a real possibility, but the only way that's going to happen is by breaking the traditional rules of politics.