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Media Matters: Podcasting, Vidcasting and other Online Media Tools, Tips and Trends » Blog Archive » What We Can Learn from the “Yes We Can” Phenomenon

What We Can Learn from the “Yes We Can” Phenomenon

It’s campaign season, and we can’t help but compare the web videos being circulated by supporters of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. They are an object lesson in what works and what doesn’t in the world of viral video.By now, everyone who isn’t living under a rock has seen, or at least heard of, the famous Obama tribute “Yes We Can.” Total views thus far: more than 5 million.

It was a rush job, produced in two days, including the time it took to contact and convince 30-odd famous musicians and actors to come into the studio. The campaign had nothing to do with it - they didn't even know it was happening. It was posted on Saturday February 2nd, had 700,000 hits by Monday, and has grown exponentially since then.

Even if, like me, you find it just a tad overly-emotional, you've gotta admit it works. It's moving. It's obviously spontaneous. And it does all the things that official political ads rarely if ever accomplish: it's impressionistic, indirect, emotive. It captures a mood of aspiration and possibility without hammering home a poll-tested message. And it does that because, presumably, it reflects the true and idiosyncratic feelings of the people who created it (especially Wil.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas and his friend, the filmmaker Jesse Dylan).

Okay, so let's check out the competition. Twelve days after the Yes We Can phenomenon hit YouTube, the Clinton campaign responded with a video of their own, called Hillary 4U and Me.

If you just finished watching it, I bet you laughed (be sure to check out the dance sequence around 2:16). But maybe not in the way the campaign intended, because this is an official campaign production. The staging is obvious in the "Hillary" t-shirts, the over-determined multiculturalism and age span of the crowd. On the whole, it's got a certain campy bad taste. The music is outdated, simplistic and childish. Catchy, in a camp song kind of way. But a little embarrassing. This is what happens when you think too hard about imitating someone else's work and try to be inspiring without feeling inspired. Total views: 448,310.For a more tongue-in-cheek effort (again, funded by the campaign), see this one, called "Hillary and the Band". Total views: 396,839.

Clearly it is targeted at hipster GenY voters. But the strain of stretching across the great generational divide produces cracks through which one catches an unmistakable glimpse of pandering and desperation - kind of like the teacher who tries too hard to be cool.My personal favorite web video of this campaign season is the recent and relatively modest Mariachi tribute to Obama called Viva Obama (It went up last week and it's had 256,952 viewers so far).

It's hilarious, smart, and the music is totally authentic. It isn't over-produced. The focus of the piece is the genuine enthusiasm of a specific group of supporters. Compare this one to the Hillary4U&Me video and you can start to see that there is a right way and a wrong way to take advantage of viral video, and it has everything to do with authenticity.So how do you cultivate authenticity? Well, that's probably a topic for a longer conversation - and it's the sub-text of almost all of our posts! Let's just say for now that the surest way to kill it is to set out to imitate a competitor. Or to try to be all things to all people.

In order for authenticity to emerge, we have to open up and make room for idiosyncratic expressions. We have to set aside the fear that our message will be adapted to someone else's creative vision. In the world of communications, there is the message you intend to transmit and then there is how other people interpret that message. And there is always going to be a little bit of difference, a little bit of space between those two things. That space is where dialogue happens. Sometimes it's a good idea to provide a stage and then get off it, so your audience can contribute their own voices. It's hard to give up the security of scripted, vetted, focus-group tested messaging - but letting others have their say can open the doors to a kind of authentic creativity that is impossible to imitate.

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