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joanna weiss

High-tech PR in the hands of rubes

Do you sometimes get the sense, as I have this month, that the presidential campaigns’ online operations are hurting more than they’re helping?

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Case in point 1: On June 1, the day that dismal job numbers are released, the Obama campaign releases a video featuring Anna Wintour, the “Vogue” editor who inspired “The Devil Wears Prada.” Gazing down her nose, she invites Obama supporters to a fundraiser she is co-hosting with one of “the most incredible women in the world”: Sarah Jessica Parker. This is apparently a bid to tap into a “Sex and the City” envy that shriveled and died circa 2008 — and to battle Mitt Romney for the title of “candidate least in touch with the commoners.” The Republican National Committee responds with a video called “Meanwhile,” which overlays Wintour’s speech with bad employment stats.

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Case in point 2: The Romney campaign makes three spelling errors in its online offerings: “sneak-peak,” “offical,” and “Amercia.” That last one appears prominently in the campaign’s new mobile app, which allows you to overlay a Mitt-friendly slogan on top of your own photo, then send it to your friends, thereby telling them that “I’m a Mom for Mitt!” or that you’re in favor of “A Better Amercia.” The website Wonkette holds a contest for people to send in their own Mitt photos. Results include the Romney slogan “Day One, Job One,” superimposed over a photo of a man sitting on a toilet.

What’s most astounding about these mistakes is how unnecessary they were, given that they’d happened before in the corporate world. So says Sam Ford, director of digital strategy for the communications firm Peppercom and a comparative media studies affiliate at MIT. He reminded me of a time, in 2006, when Chevrolet decided to let people create their own ads for the Chevy Tahoe, using online video, on the Chevrolet site. People responded with short films explaining how Chevy was raping the environment.

Chalk it up to what Sam Ford calls the “gee-whiz shiny new object mentality,” which draws both corporate chieftains and campaign strategists — two groups dominated by wealthy, cloistered, aging white men — to rush headlong into the digital world, simply because it’s there. Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and mobile apps are cheap and easy to produce. The kids are talking about them. So campaigns and companies tend to leave the conception and operation to interns and low-level employees. Often, it’s clear that no one is watching from above. Or proofreading.

None of this absurdity — in June, no less — is going to sink a campaign on its own. But it speaks to a larger mistake that both camps seem to be making: the assumption that their candidates are beloved, iconic brands, and that loyalty of the base is so deep and pure that it will overwhelm any snark from elsewhere.

This is the myth of “engagement,” the current buzzword in marketing. And sometimes it works. The Coca-Cola Facebook page is a wonder to behold: a collection of random photos featuring bottles of Coke, each one drawing thousands of “likes” and hundreds of comments, elegies to a soft drink — “Dear Coke, How do I love thee?? Let me count the ways!!!! :D — that couldn’t all have been written by Coca-Cola employees.

Why people feel the need to publicly declare their love for a soft drink — to make this their cry into the wilderness — is a larger philosophical question. Still, that loyalty is an impressive thing, and Sam Ford says it’s caused confusion in the marketing world; the digital guru constantly has to remind corporate clients that, no, they’re not as popular as Apple or Coke, and that “people don’t get excited about toilet paper the way they get excited about the MacBook Pro.”

Nor do they get excited about presidential candidates — particularly ones that have been battered in the press, pilloried on the radio, and stripped, by the realities of actual time in office, of any iconic status they might once have held. Really, kids at Romney HQ? You can visualize hordes of women who would call themselves “Moms for Mitt,” but you forgot that bitter liberals have
iPhones, too?

And as for you Obama lackeys in Chicago: Yes, Barack Obama is a brand. But do you know what’s also a brand? Anna Wintour. She’s also known, to millions of readers and movie viewers, as the devil.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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