Why Presidential Hopefuls Are Relying on Endorsements From Social Celebrities

Lena Dunham, Phil Robertson and others are picking sides

In the 2012 presidential campaigns, social media was all about YouTube, Facebook and Twitter and about the candidates having their digital playbooks together—that is, being organized enough to regularly push out videos, posts and tweets.

This time around, in a world that is increasingly Kardashian-ized—where Instagram, Snapchat and Vine are the conduit between socially savvy stars and the public and potentially influence voters, especially millennial ones, by the masses—it is perhaps Hollywood that has emerged as the most fertile ground for partnerships for the candidates.

Celebrity endorsements are not new, of course—having been raised to an art form during President Bill Clinton's first run for the White House. But the stars and their social media prowess have never been as central to the strategies of White House aspirants.

Andrew Forrest, director of audience development for Hillary Clinton's campaign, notes that while its social media strategy involves building audiences via its own Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, it is also "thinking about how we can put our content in front of other outlets or well-established social influencers." In one of the highest-profile examples of a campaign forging a formalized relationship with a pop-culture personality this campaign season, Clinton's team handed Lena Dunham, creator and star of HBO's Girls, the keys to the Democrat's Instagram account, which has 679,000 followers. In December, the Clinton feed posted three photos of the actress talking to voters in New Hampshire, drawing 43,500 likes and more than 1,800 comments. For her part, Dunham shared six pictures from her Hillary stumping with her 2.3 million Instagram followers, racking up an additional 124,500 likes and some 5,000 comments.

"When you look at something like a Lena Dunham or any star takeover of an account, what you're really looking at is not only bringing people into the [political] process but also getting earned-media buzz," notes Tammy Gordon, founder of social media agency Verified Strategy.

With that kind of engagement in mind, Clinton's principal party rival for the presidency, Sen. Bernie Sanders, last month spawned an overnight video hit when rapper Michael Render—commonly known as Killer Mike—posted a six-part interview with the candidate on his social media accounts, covering everything from gun control to marijuana legalization and social justice. The clips on YouTube have been watched more than 1.8 million times, with an additional 274,800 views on Facebook.

"It's the new, hip endorsement," says Sarah Newhall, evp of strategy and insights at Democratic-focused marketing agency Blue State Digital. "You're seeing the network of influence a lot of these individuals have and an actual ability to see just how far they can extend your message. If you do it well and grow your audience through those influencers and start to educate them on actual position and value proposition, then you start to build a one-on-one relationship with them."

On the other end of the ideological spectrum, Phil Robertson, patriarch of A&E's Duck Dynasty, this month pledged his support for Republican candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, creating a one-minute video of the pair duck hunting in the style of the reality series. Less than one week after it was posted, the clip had garnered more than 1.2 million YouTube and Facebook views. "We intentionally filmed it and cut it in a way where it almost feels like one is watching an episode, but it's done thematically in a way that [is similar to] the Duck Dynasty show is and then packaged with a petition [link] and a custom landing page to allow voters to join the campaign," explains Josh Perry, social media director for Cruz's campaign. Continuing their relationship, the Cruz and Robertson camps are developing a line of branded products that will be sold on Cruz's website, proceeds going to the conservative firebrand's campaign.

As for the GOP front-runner Donald Trump, he has put much less energy into enlisting the aid of digital stars. As Gordon points out, Trump himself "is the ultimate influencer—people are tuning in almost like a reality show." To wit: The Donald's campaign stop in Pensacola, Fla., this month produced a viral smash, featuring three young girls in star-spangled cheerleader outfits performing to an over-the-top, patriotic ditty dubbed "The Official Donald Trump Jam." The clip was posted to the YouTube channel of Fox 10 Phoenix and earned more than 4 million views in just a few days, plus millions more impressions via other media that picked it up.

Of course, nobody knows whether any of this will translate into actual votes. And while the campaigns would obviously disagree, there are those who contend that this unprecedented focus on celebrity contributes to the general dumbing down of political discourse in this country. "It's always been difficult for younger folks [to understand political issues], but now you layer the social media snark and entertainment on top of it and I wonder if the seriousness of the debate is lost," explains David Almacy, partner at Engage, a digital firm that works with Republican candidates.

As Washington and Hollywood join together, what of those social influencers outside show business—the likes of Nash Grier, Bethany Mota and Casey Neistat—who built their celebrity not on TV or music but on YouTube, Vine and Snapchat? As it happens, some campaigns are in the process of negotiating deals with such influencers, Adweek has learned.

At least one Internet star insists he has no desire to get involved in politics. Jerome Jarre, the Vine star who has amassed more than 8.6 million fans and whose videos have been watched more than one billion times on the platform, sees it this way: "We are here to inspire people and make them laugh and empower them to become the best version of themselves, not manipulate them for money to vote for x or y."

From well-orchestrated partnerships to random, one-off endorsements, celebrities are at the center of the presidential race. At the same time, the pols are perfecting their own digital prowess. Here, how social media are hitting every angle of the 2016 election.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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