Introducing Viral Politics: The ‘Big Bird’ Moment

Welcome to Viral Politics, my new academic blog for covering the latest political uses of social media. For my inaugural post, I’m turning back the clock a bit to discuss what I believe to be one the most significant moments from last year’s presidential campaign: the Obama team’s “Big Bird” ad.

As you may recall, this was released a few days after Obama’s widely-panned performance in the first of three debates with Mitt Romney. Although the response to Obama was overwhelmingly negative from both Republican and Democratic quarters, his supporters took to social media to shift the momentum by mocking Romney’s comment about defunding PBS. Big Bird-themed anti-Romney memes quickly began to proliferate online, and the Obama campaign saw an opportunity to join the chorus by producing the above advertisement. Notably, the clip ran on Comedy Central during the Daily Show and Colbert Report, and employed a satirical style that was very familiar to audiences of these shows as well as popular online parody videos (yet was largely unprecedented for a formal campaign advertisement).

This moment, in which an official campaign marketing team deliberately mimicked the ‘grassroots’ approach of comedic meme circulators on social media. symbolizes the growing importance of viral politics. It also serves as a handy illustration of how Henry Jenkins’ concept of convergence in entertainment media (i.e. ‘where old and new media collide’) has thoroughly spread to the field of political communication. It remains to be seen whether political marketers will continue to ape the strategies of ‘grassroots’ social media – in an interesting twist, the Obama campaign actually got in trouble with PBS for using their characters without permission. In other words, the Obama team found themselves in the same quandary as countless YouTubers who have run afoul of copyright law by participating in the ‘remix’ culture lauded by new media figures like Jenkins and Lawrence Lessig. Will this controversy with PBS discourage future attempts by political campaigns to adopt the style of parodic memes and viral videos? Or will the “Big Bird” ad establish a new precedent for strategic campaign communication in the digital age? It will be very interesting to see how this plays out in upcoming election cycles…

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