25 June 2007

Attention candidates: you don't control your message

One of my favorite magazines is bloviating again about technology and elections. Seems everyone wants to talk about the Youtube election and how, once again, technology has changed everything utterly and forever.

I worked on my first political campaign 20 years ago -- it was a local campaign, with lots of knocking on doors, bumper stickers, and signs. We knew almost every family that had a yard sign with our candidate's name on it. We also knew plenty of people who lived in a house with a sign from the other guy. We kept repeating the old line, "signs don't vote." Most people who work on local elections have similar experiences -- people with the most signs often lack the most votes. Now the Economist is saying "Youtube videos don't vote." But they are making an enormous impact already.

What's changed is similar to what Richard Stacy mentioned about new technology and the media in his comment to my earlier post. It costs virtually nothing to produce and publish content, so "citizen producers" can develop their own political ads and, if they're good, they'll fly. We may see a transformation where there are no more mass producers of political or issue-oriented content, but the politicians are much more interested in the final product as opposed to the business model.

Of course companies should be concerned that they no longer have control of their brands -- but what if your brand is a candidate? And what if the person taking control of your brand has a contradictory, and not simply skeptical, agenda? What if the person with this agenda isn't inclined to reveal his or her identity?

The Supreme Court watered down McCain-Feingold yet again today, allowing corporate entities to more freely and readily invest in "issue ads" near an election. In his minority opinion Justice Souter expressed concern:
After today, the ban on contributions by corporations and unions and the limitation on their corrosive spending when they enter the political arena are open to easy circumvention, and the possibilities for regulating corporate and union campaign money are unclear.

If the good Justice got on the 'net a little more, he'd realize money isn't as much of an object anymore. Transparency is the true issue here.

From the political perspective, the campaigns have to move forward with a similar understanding as companies -- they are no longer the sole masters of their brand, or in campaign-speak, their "message." More and more they will have to engage directly, respond immediately. The good news it will be relatively cheap (in terms of money) to do so. The challenge will come in managing other campaign resources to do so effectively.

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