They’re cooking bacon on the barrel of a semiautomatic rifle, destroying cellphones in fantastic fashion, putting 700 pages through a wood chipper, and playing childhood board games — all on camera.
These wacky stunts have a serious goal: reaching millennials, and doing it on the cheap. The campaigns aspire to fill the Facebook feeds and Twitter timelines of millions of voters, perhaps prompting them to research a candidate’s policy positions. At least, that is how the campaigns’ thinking goes.
“With 17 candidates in this race, people are looking for temperament and character and judgment,” said Henry Goodwin, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana’s deputy communication director. But first, candidates must be noticed.
Jindal did push-ups at the BuzzFeed offices, competing against people wearing T-shirts emblazoned with words such as “taxes” and “Obamacare,” in video released last week. (Spoiler alert: He came in second.)
“It helps to show Bobby’s sense of humor and his personality,” Goodwin said.
The trick is for the videos to feel authentic and not forced, said digital strategists and political analysts. If a video is inauthentic, it will to catch fire for all the wrong reasons, experts said.
“Young people can spot inauthenticity a mile away, 10 miles away,” said Erin O’Brien, chair of the political science department at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “The viral videos that work best are the ones that show who a candidate is.”
And there are plenty of videos out there.
Of the most original: “Making Machine-Gun Bacon ” by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. He wrapped strips of cured pork around the barrel of an AR-15 and fired off a few rounds to cook it. The video has more than 850,000 views via IJReview, a video and publishing platform popular among conservatives.
Cruz might have kicked off the parade of viral-seeking stunts early this summer, when the college debate champion recorded a video for BuzzFeed featuring his best impressions of characters from “The Simpsons.’’
Next up: Carly Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, who talked down to male subordinates in a BuzzFeed video called “If Men Were Treated Like Women In The Office.” It has more than 574,000 views.
Later in July, in a video for IJReview, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, took a meat cleaver and golf club to his cellphone in response to Trump giving out his number. In the three weeks it has been online, the video of Graham has been viewed more than 2.1 million times on its YouTube channel.
Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, put on rubber gloves and showed the world how to beat the children’s game Operation in a video also for IJReview that has been viewed almost 50,000 times.
“You always want to go where the voters are, and not a day goes by that we don’t see another study about increasing trends about Americans getting their news online and on mobile,” said Mindy Finn, a veteran Republican digital strategist.
A recent study by Pew Research Center asked Americans to rank their sources of political news shows. According to the report, millennials between 18 and 33 overwhelmingly receive political and government news from Facebook, while baby boomers turn to local TV news. Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1980, turn to social media and television news in a roughly 50-50 split, the study showed.
Trendy videos and smartphone apps can tell voters something about a candidate — that he or she is innovative, for example — but Finn cautioned against abandoning tried-and-true standards of showing a candidate’s worth.
Vincent Harris, chief digital strategist for Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and president of Harris Media, said that using the Internet to communicate a candidate’s message was something of a creative luxury during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Now, he said, it is “mandatory” to reach people under 35 years old.
It’s something President Obama seems to know well, having appeared on Web sensations such as Funny or Die’s satirical series “Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifiankis.”
Gone are the days when Republicans simply could run campaign ads on Fox News or Democrats on CNN or MSNBC, for that matter, Harris said. Thanks to world of the DVR, voters can fast-forward through the commercials in the TV shows they’ve recorded, if they watch television at all. Increasingly, people are forgoing cable for Internet streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus.
Harris said the Paul campaign has begun to use platforms such as Snapchat, a photo and video-sharing app, to reach voters. The campaign uploaded three videos to Snapchat that showed Paul taking a chain saw to the tax code, as well as burning it and putting it through a wood chipper. The most popular: Paul burning the tax code, Harris said.
“It’s this concept of native advertising, and this concept of entertainment advertising. Younger people want to experience the ad for themselves,” he said.
But Greg Goodale, the associate dean in the college of arts, media, and design at Northeastern University, said it’s about something else too: free media.
There are too many candidates and not enough space on the airways to support television commercials for each of them in early voting states, Goodale said.
Candidates, super PACs, and special interest groups have already begun to gobble up ad space on the airwaves of WMUR-TV in New Hampshire, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to have their spots broadcast during daytime talk shows and prime time TV. But, he said, they are competing with corporations who want to continue to advertise their products, too.
“It’s about . . . how desperate all of them are to get free media,” Goodale said. “There’s not just enough bandwidth and advertising space. There’s just not enough time.”