To be sure, the mashed-up video of Hillary Clinton as an Orwellian floating head, spreading her bland vision of the future to a dead-eyed crowd of gray-faced zombies, is a fine piece of political cinema.
The anonymously crafted "Big Sister" clip — which splices the presidential contender into a takeoff of Apple's famous "1984" ad — has been widely circulated over YouTube and the like since its debut a few weeks ago. Some pundits have even credited it as the first shot over the bow in what they predict will be a presidential race in which viral video will play a huge role.
But what's the big deal? For one, we don't know who created the video, which features a female athlete wearing an iPod and slinging a hammer to smash a giant video display with Clinton's deathly blue talking head on it.
It ends with the Apple Computer logo twisted into an O (for fellow presidential candidate Barack Obama) and the tagline: "On Jan. 14, the Democratic primary will begin. And you'll see why 2008 won't be like 1984."
The imagery is arresting, but what does it even mean? It's not like the speech Clinton is giving during the roughly minute-long clip is the work of a dictator in the making. It's simply lifted from one of the many "conversation" videos she's posted on her Web site, and it finds her making some innocuous statements about her aspirations for office.
"I intend to keep telling you how I stand on all the issues," she says, as bootjack riot troops march in formation and blank-faced, dusty workers are herded into the arena to watch her on the big screen. As a respirator-like machine beeps in the background, Clinton continues her speech, with some key phrases, such as "this is our conversation," popping up in computer script over her washed-out face.
Obama's camp was quick to say it had nothing to do with the ad attacking his principal rival, with spokesman Bill Burton telling the San Francisco Chronicle that "it's somebody else's creation." He added, however, that the attention proves that there is a "lot of energy for Sen. Obama on the Web, in communities all over the country ... and frankly, that energy will manifest itself in a lot of ways."
Somewhat predictably, the same video with Obama's talking head in place of Clinton's — using his mock-serious December pronouncement that said, "I'd like to announce to all of America that I'm ready ... for the Chicago Bears to go all the way!" — began making the rounds earlier this week. That video concludes with the words "The Bears lost, so will Obama" appearing on the screen, followed by "Clinton for President."
If nothing else, in a run for the White House in which candidates are expected to have to spend upward of $100 million each to be contenders, the noise made by a home-cooked ad seemingly created outside an official campaign organization proves this election will be about more than what the candidates themselves say. But despite what pundits are saying about how the ad shows Clinton as hopelessly out of touch and mired in old-school thinking, don't expect these kind of guerilla tactics to be the tipping point — so says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television.
"I think the impact will be minimal," he said. "The fact that it's an anti-Hillary commercial done in the old Apple style carries some message, but it's clear someone did a typical cool YouTube thing, but whoever made it was in no way a political strategist."
Thompson said the first version he saw didn't have the Obama tag at the end, which made its point even more confusing. But even with the hammer-smash image at the end, he didn't see is as a clear indictment of Clinton for anything other than being a bit stiff, boring politician. "As for its impact, even if it is seen by [millions], I can't see how it would influence people's opinion," he said. "It signals that we'll be talking about it, but it's not a promotion for Barack Obama's candidacy as much as it's a promotion for YouTube."
And as for all the talk in the wake of the ad that it represents that future of political campaigning, Thompson isn't buying it. "Campaign managers have no control over this, negative or positive," he said. "What if someone who really liked Hillary put out a YouTube video that said, 'Ninety percent of white supremacists like Hillary Clinton?' She wouldn't like that, even if they were supporting her."
Thompson said if candidates were really looking to get a new media edge on their rivals, they would look to the big screen instead of YouTube. "[Al Gore's environmental documentary] 'An Inconvenient Truth' proved that after how many centuries of communicating political messages the same way — making a speech at a podium and talking loud — that movie proved you can make a point with modern technologies like PowerPoint and really make an impact. If I were running for president now, I wouldn't be thinking about YouTube or commercials, I'd be trying to produce three movies like that on my pet subjects."