YouTube Emerges as Political Tool in Campaigns

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NOTE: This piece contains graphic language that may offend some listeners.

Political ads are everywhere this campaign season — TV, radio, print ads and billboards. Most cost a lot of money and are subject to legal restrictions. Now a new forum could affect some races: word-of-mouth advertising that uses Internet video sites.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Many candidates running for office this season are jumping on a new bandwagon. It's called YouTube. Several campaigns have produced ads exclusively for play on the Internet site, where the usual rules about content and responsibility don't apply.

NPR's Guy Raz reports the ads are sometimes over the top, and some have even made local campaigns into national sensations.

GUY RAZ: Forget Vegas and New York. Lacrosse, Wisconsin, has to be America's next super-sex capital. And the Third District's congressman, Democrat Ron Kind, is apparently the Larry Flint of Congress. That's right, just listen to this Web-only ad put out by Ron Kind's Republican opponent, Paul Nelson.

(Soundbite of YouTube Advertisement)

Unidentified Man #1: Instead of spending money to study heart disease, Ron Kind spent your money to study the masturbation habits of old men. Ron Kind even spent your tax dollars to pay teenage girls to watch pornographic movies with probes connected to their genitalia. Ron Kind pays for sex, but not for soldiers.

RAZ: Now Ron Kind, who's a member of the Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Lacrosse and a long time member of The Optimists Club, kindly agreed to answer the charges.

So Congressman Kind, are you a sex maniac?

Representative RON KIND (Democrat, Wisconsin): Well no, at least not the last time I checked. And quite frankly, I was just shocked and amazed when I saw those ads.

RAZ: Okay, for the record, Ron Kind is about as straight laced as a Mormon missionary. The money he allegedly funneled to the sex industry was a bipartisan measure to fund the National Institutes of Health.

Representative KIND: In fact, when we appropriate money to the National Institutes of Health, close to 50,000 research grants are given out of a course of a fiscal year.

RAZ: But YouTube is making obscure candidates like Ron Kind's opponent into Internet sensations, which then translates into free publicity for the campaigns, kind of like this story.

Representative KIND: It doesn't matter how ridiculous the ad is. In fact, the worse it is, the better the chance it's going to get coverage in the mainstream media.

RAZ: Now, Ron Kind is set to sweep the floor with Paul Nelson in November, so he's not worried, but he is annoyed. Web-only ads aren't yet regulated by federal election laws, so for now he can't do much.

The same goes for Republican Congressman Don Sherwood, but for very different reasons. Now, Sherwood ran into trouble two years ago, when his young mistress claimed he tried to strangle her. So a few weeks ago, he put out this despairing mea culpa on local TV.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Representative DON SHERWOOD (Republican, Pennsylvania): I made a mistake that nearly cost me the love of my wife, Carol, and our daughters. As a family, we've worked through this because of my deep regret, our love, and the fact that the allegation of abuse was never true.

RAZ: Someone posted this ad to YouTube, where it's now been seen by thousands of people across the country who've apparently enjoyed malicious delight at Sherwood's expense.

Mr. BILL BUCK (Democratic Consultant): I think YouTube is revolutionizing political communication.

RAZ: This is Bill Buck, a Democratic consultant, a man at the vanguard of a trend that is still pretty limited. Buck's put up dozens of ads on the site for his clients.

Mr. BUCK: It's a tremendously valuable way not only now but into the future for getting whatever message out that you want to get out.

RAZ: Now, one of Bill Buck's recent ads hit the YouTube jackpot. More than 30,000 people have watched this ad. It's an ad that would otherwise only be seen by voters in a sleepy district in upstate New York.

(Soundbite of YouTube Advertisement)

Unidentified Man #2: Next summer, I'm going on a camping trip with my friends. On my way home, I'll be in a car accident and I'll be paralyzed for the rest of my life.

Unidentified Woman: In 20 years, I'll have Alzheimer's. I won't recognize my husband or my kids.

Unidentified Child: Next week, my mommy and daddy are going to find out that I have diabetes.

Unidentified Woman: This is my Congressman.

Unidentified Child: James Walsh.

Unidentified Man #3: He voted against federal funding for stem-cell research.

Unidentified Child: How come he thinks he gets to decide who lives and who dies? Who is he?

RAZ: The ad's been so successful, Buck's group has repeated it elsewhere.

(Soundbite of YouTube Advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: This is my Congresswoman.

Unidentified Child: Congresswoman Thelma Drake.

Unidentified Man #3: She voted against federal funding for stem-cell research.

(Soundbite of YouTube Advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: This is my Congressman.

Unidentified Child: Congressman Don Sherwood.

(Soundbite of YouTube Advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: This is my Congressman.

Unidentified Child: Congressman Chris Chocola.

Unidentified Man #3: He voted against federal funding for stem-cell research.

RAZ: Oh, and by the way, at the end of the ad, the little girl reveals that Chris Chocola is also a pornographer. Just kidding.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.

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