Net Election

Is Video Campaign Spam the New New Thing?

Upstairs from Samson’s Vitamins and Herbs, at the corner of 17th and Church streets in northwest Washington, D.C., there’s a funky little eatery called the CyberSTOP Cafe. For $5 per half-hour, you can rent time on a PC or an iMac, while you sip an espresso and take in the zany decor (chairs upholstered in leopard skin; a painting of the Mona Lisa holding a coffee cup). Last week Al Gore dropped by with some campaign staff and a few reporters in tow, trudged up a narrow staircase, and had a campaign aide shoot a video with a rented digital camera while he read a letter to Bill Bradley. Then Gore downloaded the video onto one of the CyberSTOP computers and e-mailed it to the Bradley campaign. He put down a $20 tip and left.

It was, of course, a gimmick. But all technological breakthroughs begin as gimmicks. Does video campaign spam have a future?

Before answering that question, let’s examine the somewhat flimsy substance of Gore’s message to Bradley. (This won’t take long.) In the video e-mail, Gore asked Bradley, with great sobriety, about an “oversight” in Bradley’s campaign literature concerning the Medicare trust fund. “For my part,” the flickering image of Gore intoned, “I have proposed dedicating a significant portion of the budget surplus to Medicare to extend the life of the trust fund.” By contrast, Bradley’s campaign literature doesn’t propose similarly fencing off funds for Medicare. “Since independent experts agree that more resources will be necessary to assure Medicare is strong for the future,” Gore continued, “my question is, ‘What specific measures do you propose to compensate for not dedicating any of the surplus to strengthen the Medicare trust fund?’ ” In essence, Gore said that Bradley’s plan to expand health coverage to uninsured Americans (which is more ambitious than Gore’s plan) would bankrupt the Medicare trust fund unless Bradley raised taxes. But the relevance of this attack is severely compromised by the reality that 1) Bradley had already admitted he might have to raise taxes if circumstances warranted it; and 2) during his cybercafe appearance, Gore himself told reporters that “you have to have flexibility on the fiscal side.” When asked about Gore’s query, Eric Hauser, a spokesman for Bradley, pointed out that Gore was no more willing than Bradley to rule out a tax increase. (For more on Gore’s recent mau-mauing of Bradley, and the strategy that lies behind it, click here.)

So much for substance. Turning to technological matters, Hauser admitted that Bradley never got around to viewing Gore’s e-mail. Neither did Hauser and neither did anyone Hauser knew of in the campaign (though they were familiar with its content from reading a transcript). Apparently the video message got lost somewhere in the maw of Bradley’s campaign Web site. But obviously the video wasn’t really intended for Bradley; its target was the national press, a couple hundred of whose members received e-mail press releases with the video attached. Thanks to its novelty, the stunt won Gore some coverage from the New York Times, Salon, Scripps Howard, and a few other outlets.

One doesn’t have to be a visionary to imagine where this might go. The largest single expense that political campaigns face nowadays is TV advertising. Gore, for instance, has dropped a couple hundred thousand dollars on ads in Iowa and New Hampshire. Video e-mailing is much cheaper. No, wait: Make that much, much, much cheaper. Even figuring in Gore’s $20 tip, the tab Gore ran up sending his e-mail to Bradley and a bunch of reporters probably came in at well under $100. (It would have been even cheaper had Gore been able to use the video camera already in his personal possession, but campaign finance rules made that too difficult.) Sending that same e-mail to 10 times as many people would have cost precisely the same amount.

For now, the Gore campaign has no grand plans to start spamming unsuspecting citizens with video messages. It does plan, however, to start sending video e-mails to people who have already indicated on the campaign Web site that they’d like to receive such material. They number in the tens of thousands. It’s not too great a leap to envision that in future presidential races–perhaps even in this one–candidates will take the next step and start buying lists of e-mail addresses so they can send targeted video messages or advertisements. If “push” technology makes a comeback, such video ads could be force-fed to the public at large at a cost that, compared to current media buys, would probably be microscopic. These ads probably wouldn’t be as effective as conventional TV ads–remember, most homes in the United States still aren’t wired to the Internet. But they’d be so much more cost-effective that they might still transform the way campaigns do business.

You can watch Gore’s video by going to the Gore 2000 campaign siteand scrolling down to “Gore Sends Bradley An Email And Video Message.” If you just want to read the text, like the Bradley folks did, click here.To read Bradley’s own spiel on health care, go to his Web siteand click on “In His Own Words.”