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Grading Jon Ossoff’s Old-Guy Attempts to Use TikTok to Win Over the Youngest Georgia Voters

*He’s 33.

Hand holding an iPhone playing a TikTok.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by @jon/TikTok and NeONBRAND on Unsplash.

Most of the thirtysomethings I know who got into TikTok this year did so for a specific reason: As the short-form video app’s cultural imprint has grown enormously during the coronavirus crisis, they wanted to understand Gen Zers and their obsession with it. Points of discussion: Why all the dancing? What’s the deal with Kellyanne Conway’s daughter? Why the constant roasting of their millennial elders?

Jon Ossoff, 33, also joined Tiktok this year, also for a specific reason. But it wasn’t to figure out who Charli D’Amelio is. It was to run for Senate.

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Ossoff, the Democratic candidate in one of Georgia’s two upcoming runoff elections, announced his arrival on TikTok—as well as Snapchat—earlier this month as an explicit effort to reach young voters. It’s been a relatively modest commitment: So far, Ossoff’s posted just under 20 videos, and netted more than 160,000 followers and 2.6 million likes. But the history of campaigning on TikTok is short, so that might be enough to qualify this as the biggest bet a major candidate has made on the app. Ossoff’s mission is much more difficult than that of his millennial peers who joined the app merely to see what the kids are up to: He has to convince those kids to take an interest in seeing what he’s up to, without pandering, condescending, or boring them. It’s your basic TikTok tightrope.

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So now that Ossoff’s had a few weeks to populate his TikTok account with content, and with early voting for the Jan. 5 runoff already underway, it seems like an opportune time to ask: How’s he doing? Is this account going to do anything for his campaign? That I can’t tell you, but please join me as I watch a sampling of his videos and grade them, in chronological order to see if he gets better over time, by how TikTok-y they are.

One of Ossoff’s earliest endeavors was nothing more or less than a TikTok of him petting a puppy. Shameless. Save that weak sauce for Instagram, dude. Grade: C

Ossoff’s most popular video thus far, which has been viewed 1.8 million times, features compelling footage of the candidate calling out his opponent, Sen. David Perdue, for being inaccessible to his constituents. Still, despite a few TikTokian touches in its editing style and use of text, it feels like an ad that could work on any number of social networks and platforms. Grade: C+

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This next one starts out looking like it might be a speech, but then Ossoff turns to the camera and directly addresses his “TikTok family”—kind of confusing; what’s going on here? But the music playing over this video is worth paying attention to: This song is the soundtrack to a TikTok trend that involves sharing a series of photos of yourself changing over time, so the video is making the connection between young people growing up and coming into their own politically. Adding music that’s popular elsewhere on TikTok is a strategy Team Ossoff deploys frequently, in ways that are sometimes elliptical even to me, and they’re pretty canny about it. Grade: B

After urging “Ossoff Nation” to post TikToks promoting the Georgia voter registration deadline in an earlier video, Ossoff made good on his promise to “duet” a couple of them, i.e. play them side by side with footage of him reacting to them, which ranks somewhere above a retweet in terms of optimal ways for fans to be acknowledged on social media. His picks are good ones, which reflects well on both himself and TikTok’s Ossoff hive. In his reaction to the first, infomercial-style one, Ossoff shows off his acting chops, evident in an admirable gameness to mimic its cheeseball tone, but I felt like his character motivations got a little muddled in the other one—is he still infomercial-reaction guy here, or is he a different guy? Grade: B+

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Here we arrive at a wholehearted attempt at participating in a TikTok meme. The best way to explain these “rare aesthetic” videos might be by example: This TikTok labeled “Rare aesthetic: Redneck KarenCore” proceeds to cycle through photos of a Kate Gosselin hairstyle, platform flip flops, a square-tip acrylic French manicure, Marlboro cigarettes—the visual accoutrement of a “Karen,” basically. Ossoff’s entry is labeled “Extremely rare aesthetic: Two Georgia runoffs to determine control of the Senate,” and it features pictures of Ossoff campaigning with his fellow Democratic candidate, Raphael Warnock, in masks, along with a screenshot of a news story about their opponents, a screenshot of an inbox filled with emails from the Ossoff campaign, a partial electoral map where Georgia is blue, etc. A solid effort, but I would like to see this situation represented in an example as visually specific as the square-tip acrylic French manicure, and I’m not getting that. Grade: B

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A Das Racist song called “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” about, well, exactly what its title suggests, has been moderately viral on TikTok lately, and this video subs “Ossoff runoff” and “Warnock runoff” into the song. There’s something about the specific weirdness of combination fast-food establishments that translates perfectly to the complicated improbability of a double runoff election, making this video simple but incredibly satisfying. Grade: A-

Buckle in because this is going to take a second to explain. Here we see some footage of Ossoff sitting offstage as president-elect Biden speaks at an outdoor event. Playing over it is the voice of a woman declaring discerningly, “He knows Barack. I love Barack. I’m swiping right.” The audio is a TikTok sound that originated in a fairly simple video that showed a woman encountering a photo of a man posed with President Obama on a dating app, but it caught on, the way these things do on TikTok, as a track to play over other dating app discoveries, including ones that don’t involve Obama at all. The convolutedness of this—actually, Ossoff doesn’t know Barack; he knows Biden, and Biden knows Barack—only makes it more appropriate for this app. TikTokiness is off the charts. I think he may be getting the hang of this. Grade: A

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