Important people across the media and political world are fretting over Phil de Vellis' instantly legendary anti-Hillary YouTube ad. The fear is that is that the Internet will provide a backdoor for cleverly-produced political advertising of unknown origins:
Many suspected -- correctly, it turns out -- that the producer was professionally involved in politics. Some speculated that the project was funded by an organization with deep pockets, and worried about the impact that this development could have on the 2008 presidential election.
"It might not be a pretty picture," wrote Zack Exley on techPresident, a group blog on the web's relationship to the presidential campaigns. Exley, a Democrat, is a senior strategist with OMP, a D.C.-based communications and fundraising firm, and co-founder and president of the New Organizing Institute. "Think ahead to what ad agencies, with checks from Republican political donors, would produce against Hillary, Obama or (John) Edwards in the general election."
Really? I don't doubt Exley is correct that deep-pocketed donors can fund all kinds of questionable advertising, and with so many conduits available, it's easier than ever to mask the origin of that advertising. But I don't think the "Vote Different" ad means what these folks think it means.
Maybe I'm being naïve. But these fears give entirely too much credence to the capabilities of political consultants. If some donor decided to drop a million bucks on some secretive Internet ad campaign against Hillary Clinton, it would be a waste of money. Here's why.
The 2004 "Swiftboat" ads were paid for by an organization and ran on TV. Lots of people saw them because they had no choice. You're midway through "Desperate Housewives," and boom, you're watching Kerry's Christmas in Cambodia.
Internet advertising does not have this captive mass audience. It has much smaller, more discerning slices of the population. Seeding the Internet with anti-Hillary or anti-Obama smears and hoping one "breaks out" is not a very efficient strategy. (Though lord knows, it will be attempted.) But even the most conventionally brilliant political attack ad, or the most outrageous smear, won't easily take the web by storm because most (sane) people don't go online to watch political ads, and those who do are unlikely to let their votes be swayed by what they see.
"Vote Different" is also not a Swiftboat-style ad - that is, it is not a smear. It makes no factual misrepresentations. It makes no specific assertions at all. It's a clever clip that captures something not-so-good about the Clinton campaign. People liked watching it. That's why the viral effect kicked in.
Finally, the fate of "Vote Different" is itself an argument against the notion of the coming epidemic of Internet Swiftboating. If an Internet attack does succeed in leaping from obscurity to Drudge to the MSM, how long can its origins remain obscured? Once a humble YouTube clip ends up on the evening news, and hundreds of reporters, bloggers, and opposition researchers are dusting for electronic fingerprints, it's only a matter of time before the perpetrator is found and fesses up - either because s/he has no choice, or because fame has come a-calling.