Barbara Lippert’s Critique: The Raw and the Ugly

For political elections, we know that the Internet is the way of the future. If we could just figure out how. Right now, we’re in our “sweaty lip” period. Just as Richard Nixon’s unseemly perspiration came to characterize an otherwise revolutionary media moment in 1960—the first televised presidential debate—we’re still sweating out the role of the Web in the coming 2008 election. What we’ve got now is kind of raw and ugly; the metaphorical pancake makeup is yet to be applied.

For example, if the Internet is supposed to be democratizing knowledge, isn’t YouTube supposed to be doing the same for video sharing? You know, breaking down barriers, throwing open doors to any informed netizen with a camera?

Right. I guess we have a way to go, because the biggest political phenomenon to come out of YouTube this summer was the Obama girl. All that freedom and new technology, and the best we end up with is the GoDaddying of political advertising?

Well, “Obama Girl”—as well as the two follow-ups, “Obama Girl vs. Giuliani Girls” and “Mitt Romney Girls”—is not quite as dumb or cheesy as they look. Just as most of the user-generated spots that won brand-sponsored contests last year came from industry people (as did the much-seen anti-Hillary “1984” video), so, too, does the “Obama Girl” work come from some serious marketing minds. Ben Relles, for instance, the mastermind of the team, has an MBA from Wharton and has worked at major agencies.

This group is less interested in electing any one candidate than it is in mixing politics, sex and clever lyrics to build its own Web brand, barelypolitical.com. “The revolution will not be televised” was a famous phrase from years ago. Nowadays, the message is more that the Internet is hard to monetize. Here’s what barelypolitical.com has taught us:

1. Use a swimsuit model. More than the catchy tune (and “I’ve got a crush on Obama” tends to stay in your head), Amber Lee Ettinger, the actress/dancer/lip-synching model and star of the series, gets a ton of attention. (By the way, the creators found the directors for the low-budget, weekend shoot on Craigslist.) Fox News has devoted lavish time to the videos and certain male news anchors have made fools of themselves while conducting interviews. Here’s a nugget from MSNBC’s Hardball:

Chris Matthews: Amber, you’re walking down the street. You’re beautiful. But do people come up to you and say, “I’ve seen you in the video”?

Ettinger: Yes, they do.

Matthews: How many hits do these guys have? Like 20 hits to memorize your face?

Ettinger: I don’t know.

(Turns out, she has so far gotten 3 million hits on YouTube.)

2. When the slobbering starts to slow down, up the ante with a second video. In this case, with a diverse cast of tough, urban “Giulani Girls” to fight with Ettinger’s Obama crew. (The Obama women sing a line that Giuliani “married his cousin.”) The smackdown got 1.2 million hits on YouTube.

3. When that dies down, make a third video. Barelypolitical went with a Mitt Romney joke. Really just clips of the media success of “Obama Girl,” it ends with blonde triplets embracing a life-size cutout of Romney—a subtle religious dig on his Mormonism. (Plus, polygamy is hot what with the success of Big Love and Girls Next Door, the reality show about Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and his three live-in blondes). In its first week, it got 300,000 hits.

The truly strange and sort of sad thing is the videos have also been featured on Russian and Japanese TV news, and Al Jazeera. (Perhaps even Osama has watched “Obama Girl”! Maybe he even bought the T-shirt!)

But for American voters actually interested in politics, the reality is that the videos are not necessarily pro-Obama. “Obama Girl” makes fun of his bare-chested romps on the beach and the way he disingenuously uses his charisma and sex appeal while trying to appear sober and aboveboard.

So far, the camps have officially distanced themselves from the work. Obama claims he’s seen “the first half” of the video, which is like smoking but not inhaling, which he made fun of Clinton for doing. Romney claims he hasn’t seen his version either, though he also said that “Ann[his wife] has to stop wearing those hot pants.” Ba-bum. Later, Ann weighed in and said that the videos are “a lot of fun.”

That’s what the creators intended. Relles, who is 32, says that the videos were meant to be “entertainment rather than serious political message.” He said that as a little boy, he learned about politics from the parodies done on Saturday Night Live by Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey.

No doubt, people will continue to watch the videos, although the jury is still out on whether a series like this would motivate fans to learn more about the candidates themselves, or have any effect on the election.

Certainly, Ettinger’s career has benefitted. And the site is selling those “Obama Girl” T’s and hats. But the videos, much like “Lonelygirl15,” will eventually jump the shark. And like sharks, or politicians on the Internet, the next set of messages has to keep moving ahead or die. Figuring out how to get serious hits from serious content is the next step. Meanwhile, who could have predicted that summer’s first political media phenom on YouTube would combine porn and perspiration?