Introducing The Citizen Marketer

citizen marketer book cover

I’m very excited to announce that my new book, The Citizen Marketer: Promoting Political Opinion in the Social Media Age, is now available from Oxford University Press! I’ve also launched a new website for the book,, which includes a blog where I’ll be posting in the future on relevant social media and politics topics. Since I’m putting all my effort behind the new site, I won’t be updating this blog as much anymore, although I invite you to check out the archive here for posts covering 2013-2016.

Here’s a short summary of the new book:

From hashtag activism to the flood of political memes on social media, the landscape of political communication is being transformed by the grassroots circulation of opinion on digital platforms and beyond. By exploring how everyday people assist in the promotion of political media messages to persuade their peers and shape the public mind, Joel Penney offers a new framework for understanding the phenomenon of viral political communication: the citizen marketer. Like the citizen consumer, the citizen marketer is guided by the logics of marketing practice, but, rather than being passive, actively circulates persuasive media to advance political interests. Such practices include using protest symbols in social media profile pictures, strategically tweeting links to news articles to raise awareness about select issues, sharing politically-charged internet memes and viral videos, and displaying mass-produced T-shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers that promote a favored electoral candidate or cause. Citizens view their participation in such activities not only in terms of how it may shape or influence outcomes, but as a statement of their own identity. As the book argues, these practices signal an important shift in how political participation is conceptualized and performed in advanced capitalist democratic societies, as they casually inject political ideas into the everyday spaces and places of popular culture.

While marketing is considered a dirty word in certain critical circles — particularly among segments of the left that have identified neoliberal market logics and consumer capitalist structures as a major focus of political struggle — some of these very critics have determined that the most effective way to push back against the forces of neoliberal capitalism is to co-opt its own marketing and advertising techniques to spread counter-hegemonic ideas to the public. Accordingly, this book argues that the citizen marketer approach to political action is much broader than any one ideological constituency or bloc. Rather, it is a means of promoting a wide range of political ideas, including those that are broadly critical of elite uses of marketing in consumer capitalist societies. The book includes an extensive historical treatment of citizen-level political promotion in modern democratic societies, connecting contemporary digital practices to both the 19th century tradition of mass political spectacle as well as more informal, culturally-situated forms of political expression that emerge from postwar countercultures. By investigating the logics and motivations behind the citizen marketer approach, as well as how it has developed in response to key social, cultural, and technological changes, Penney charts the evolution of activism in an age of mediatized politics, promotional culture, and viral circulation.



Social Media and the 2016 Presidential Election: What We’ve Learned So Far


Is Bernie Sanders the most important social media story of the U.S. presidential election so far? What is the connection between #FeelTheBern and the #Occupy movement? How is Donald Trump proving that political discourse and social media discourse are one in the same in 2016? And how do popular culture memes, like the Back to the Future-referencing one above, create entry points for citizens to make meanings out of the political? I discuss all these topics and more in my conversation with Merrill Brown for cable TV’s Carpe Diem – here’s the video:

Political Viral Videos, Citizen Journalism, and the Question of Partisanship: Interview on WWOR 9 “New Jersey Now”

New Jersey Now Joel Penney Interview

Recently, I was interviewed on “New Jersey Now,” a public affairs TV program that airs locally on WWOR 9. Fortunately, they also put the shows up online, so you can check out the interview here. In the clip, I discuss the future of political viral videos, citizen journalism and partisanship, and a number of other social media-related topics with host Jim McQueeny. We also talk about a lighthearted YouTube video put out by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s office entitled “No Pain, No Gain.” As you’ll see, I found the satirical tone of the clip to be a bit confusing in this specific context, although it’s safe to say that this kind of internet-style humor is the new normal for political advertising.

Creepy Uncle Sam: Republicans Try Viral Video Strategy to Fight Obamacare

creepy uncle sam

With the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) going into effect on October 1st, Republicans have ramped up their attempts to undermine the legislation. In addition to Congress forcing a government shutdown, conservatives have turned to viral marketing strategies to try to shift public opinion against Obamacare. The most high-profile of these efforts involves web video ads released online by a group called Generation Opportunity, funded by the Koch brothers. As explained in this piece for Time, the ads are intended to convince young adults to opt out of Obamacare so that the program will lose out on a crucial source of funding and thus fail in the long term. However, the ads having been getting the most attention for their outrageous gross-out humor, which is, of course, the lingua franca of the YouTube generation.

The ads, featuring a masked “Creepy Uncle Sam” character who threatens unsuspecting young patients with comically horrifying gynecological and rectal exams, mark an important shift in tone for American political advertising. In an earlier post, I discussed how the 2012 Obama campaign used internet-style pop culture humor to get their message across to a new generation of voters who tend to tune out more formal types of campaign messaging. Of course, the Republicans don’t want to be left behind, and the “Creepy Uncle Sam” ads signal how they too are now trying to latch onto the zeitgeist and create digital content that is entertaining and novel enough to inspire social sharing. So far, it looks like Generation Opportunity has succeeded in ‘going viral,’ with each of its video ads topping a million views on YouTube. In a sure sign of viral success, the liberal group The Other 98% has responded with an online parody that asks viewers to “opt out of Koch propaganda, not Obamacare.”

What I find particularly interesting about all of this is how the internet has freed the agents of political communication to try things that were seemingly never possible in broadcast television or other media. To put it simply, these ads are pushing the envelope of taste. I’ll leave it to other commentators to deconstruct the potential homophobic (and even racist) undertones of ads that compare Obama to a rectal-probing rapist, but suffice it to say, this is the kind of humor that one would expect from South Park rather than from a policy-minded political group. However, as political advertising moves online more and more, we can expect that its creators will do whatever it takes to capture public attention an inspire viral shares on Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms. The fact that these videos may be too risque for prime time TV is precisely the point – in a Wild West web environment where content is almost completely unregulated, shock is the rule rather than the exception, and audiences expect to see something that they can’t and won’t see anywhere else. I wonder, though, if there are any limits as to how far online political advertising will go in terms of skirting the lines of taste, or if these sorts of strategies could potentially engender a backlash. For now, it seems that all previous limits are off the table, and that the political classes are willing to be gross, weird, or just plain ridiculous in order to get jaded young voters to listen to their message.

The Sip: Marco Rubio’s Viral Moment and the Triumph of Political Style


It was the sip heard around the world… last week, during the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address, Florida Senator Marco Rubio caused a social media sensation by awkwardly lunging for a water bottle in the middle of his speech. Within seconds, Twitter exploded with mocking commentary, and the incident was quickly turned into humorous memes and gifs like the one above. Know Your Meme has a good roundup of the viral media explosion surrounding Rubio’s water break, which includes documentation of over a dozen Twitter parody accounts impersonating the water bottle itself.

See more on Know Your Meme

This social media activity brings to mind Jason Wilson’s 2011 study of political Twitter-faking published in the journal Convergence, entitled “Playing With Politics.” Interestingly, Wilson’s contention is that the people who create these political parody accounts on Twitter have no interest in making a political impact, and see themselves as simply entertaining a niche audience of political junkies (or ‘political fans’). While this suggests that the Rubio incident could be simply a matter of political discourse being transformed into popular culture, such an account seems to miss some of the underlying issues at play.

While there is no evidence as of yet regarding why people shared memes, gifs, and viral videos mocking Rubio’s water sip, the phenomenon does seem to have a real political dynamic behind it. It would be no surprise to learn that those who jumped on the incident via social media were largely Rubio critics who had a vested interest in adding to his humiliation, with the hopes that damaging his public reputation could potentially cause trouble for his future political career as a Republican presidential hopeful.

In fact, I would argue that rather than being pure pop culture fun, this sort of coordinated social media ridicule is becoming a key instrument of political power in our contemporary era of post-modern ‘mediatized’ politics. As John Corner and Dick Pels explain in their landmark 2003 volume “Media and the Restyling of Politics,” the dominant position of television and new media in political discourse have thoroughly tipped the balance in favor of style over substance, for better or for worse. Political style (performed through live television appearances, among other things) has become a primary way in which citizens evaluate their leaders. By pointing to Rubio’s “not ready for primetime” moment, the water bottle mockers were effectively making a rhetorical argument about the politician’s shortcomings as a master of political style. Of course, such a critique fails to engage with the actual substance of Rubio’s speech. Those who are concerned about the trivialization of politics via popular media (such as followers of Neil Postman, Stuart Ewen, and the like) may view this as a worrisome sign of the times.

Furthermore, Rubio quickly sensed how the embarrassing incident was being used against him by political detractors on social media (not to mention the obligatory parodies on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Saturday Night Live) and responded with a style-conscious and social media-savvy strategy of his own. Almost immediately after the speech, Rubio tweeted a photo of the water bottle as an exercise in ingratiating self-effacement.


A few days later, Rubio’s Political Action Committee launched a line of Rubio-branded water bottles, which supporters could receive with a $25 donation. The effort has already raised over $100,000 for the PAC, leading media outlets to declare that Rubio is having the last laugh. These developments suggest that both political camps are becoming highly sophisticated in their attempts to ‘spin’ viral moments on social media, and that style-heavy political rhetoric is increasingly being countered not with political substance but simply with more clever style. Which side is doing the better job here is likely in the eye of the beholder…

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…