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Between Two Ferns: Barack Obama's Presidential Step Forward for Politics

04/06/2014 14:21 BST | Updated 03/08/2014 10:59 BST

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President Obama Sitting with Zack Galifianakis on Funny Or Die's Between Two Ferns. Full Video Viewable at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnW3xkHxIEQ

In a bold effort to win over the American youth to the rejuvenated Healthcare.gov service, renowned cool cat President Barak Obama appeared on the satirical internet chat show series Between 2 Ferns[1]. Hosted by the deadpan yet venomous Zack Galifianakis, the recorded tirade of traded insults has to date obtained over 22m views globally[2], and directly resulted in a dramatic increase in healthcare sign-ups.

Some have seen Obama's actions as foolhardy and lacking the decorum befitting a man in Office. It is argued however that the acute awareness and foresight to appropriately reciprocate the communications of an increasingly digitised youth, is a huge step forward for global political communications.

Wasn't It Just a Video?

In the UK alone, people see on average over 3,500 marketing messages a day[3], all seeking to suggest, sway and ultimately sell a product or service, either overtly or covertly. This ever increasing volume of often conflicting communications inherently makes it ever more difficult to cut through and meaningfully connect with audiences.

Recognising that a simple press release or TV ad just wouldn't resonate with America's youth, Obama delivered something of genuine value that they'd actually want to engage with. Comedy. Real comedy too. Not the mildly whimsical PC jestings of an Oxbridge toff, but that of edginess and appeal - "So what's it like to be the last black President?"[4]

The emotional benefit received from the content ensured that by the time the - believed to be ingeniously deliberate - plug for healthcare.gov comes in at the end[5], the captivated audience were more than willing to partake in a value exchange (trading their attention for watching something funny) and listen to Obama's message.

So What Happened?

The fallout of this was phenomenal, with healthcare enrolment traffic increasing by 40% in the weeks succeeding the video's release[6] and America's uninsured rate now at its lowest point since 2008[7]. Most impressive however is the fact that the Youtube video page was the no.1 source of traffic to Healthcare.gov. Now this may not sound like a STOP PRESS revelation, but in showing that users went directly to the site having watched the video, it proves that comedy can result in action. No "I'll research it and see if it's a good idea," no Googling "USA Healthcare" a week later, and no millions of dollars spent on a nationwide TV campaign. Instead, by making politics fun Obama managed to get millions to go straight to their address bar and typing in H-e-a-l-t-h-c-a-r-e-.-g-o-v....[Enter]. Considering the tsunami of criticism that engulfed the unveiling of the service, proving that non-traditional means of political communication can induce a direct and immediate action at this scale is huge.

"But Lincoln Wouldn't Have Done It"[8]

As apparent self-appointed voice of the right wing, this was Bill O'Reily of Fox News' chief criticism in his lambasting of the "demeaning" interview,"[9] believing it to diminish Presidential dignity.[10] Obama has since successfully repudiated this stance, pointing to Lincoln's historic willingness to interact and joke with the public.[11] It is submitted however that his calm repost doesn't quite give O'Reily the deserved right handed slap in the face - deliverance corresponding political stance - for his ignorance of foresight. Whilst the video is prima facie a simple success at increasing youth sign-ups to healthcare.gov, it could well mark a new era of digi-politicised communications.

Back in 1922, Warren Harding broke new grounds in being the first President to politicise the airwaves with his sultry tones[12]. In a similar fashion, once an established broadcast method, FDR won the race to put his face in front of the camera. This considered, Obama following the presidential suits of his predecessors in seeking to utilise a young medium is an appropriately progressive move for political communications. It definitely doesn't make him a terrible leader.

But Will It Work for Something Bigger Than Curing a Healthcare Hiccup?

As was famously documented in the Kennedy-Nixon debates, those that tuned in on the radio believed Nixon won, whilst the 65-74m TV viewers[13] believed the reverse[14]. It was Kennedy's brilliant use of the medium that was credited to have wiped out Nixon's race lead, and ultimately led to his 0.1% victory over his Republican rival[15].

So with digital now primed as the next battleground, we could see a similarly savvy politician manage to sway the swathes of swingers and take to the Oval Office[16].

That said it's not all sunshine and roses. Whilst digital offers up a plethora of advantages over traditional media, those that act erroneously or in ignorance are quickly exposed. The vulturous press, supported by every Tom, Dick and Harry capable of clicking [create] on Tumblr[17] are for ever circling, waiting to gore and gouge any who slip up. A prime example of this is when a picture of married Congressman Anthony Weiner's wiener was made public after having tweeted the pic to a female admirer[18]. Eventually coming clean, he didn't learn his lesson, and his run for Mayor of New York was destroyed when he was found to be continuing his behaviour under pseudonym Carlos Danger[19]. In a few simple tweets, he went from a man of political standing and a bright future, to having the Congressional clout of candy floss. #SillyWeiner.

Conclusion

President Obama's use of comedy to progress the administrative agenda was bold. Very bold. However in displaying a true understanding of how his audience want to be communicated with, it was equally as brilliant.

Proving the full potential and versatility of digital as a communicatory medium, he has paved the way for others to follow suit in upcoming elections. That said, as we have and will continue to see, the road to the Oval Office is paved with dangers, and we can likely expect both blunders and successes as this medium is further explored. So with the stage set for a fairly open election in 2016, we will have to see how the candidates fair. If Kennedy is anything to go by, it could well be that whoever is more switched on digitally could be the candidate sworn in.

All this considered it would appear that only one question remains unanswered. Would Lincoln have indeed have recorded such a video? Well if Bill O'Reily can apparently speak on his behalf I guess anyone can. So yes. Definitely............From space.

References

1. Funny Or Die (2014), YouTube Channel, Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnW3xkHxIEQ (Accessed 25.05.14).

2. Funny Or Die (2014), Website, Available at http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/18e820ec3f/between-two-ferns-with-zach-galifianakis-president-barack-obama (Accessed 15.05.14).

3. Gibson, O. The Shopper's eye view of the Ads that Pass us by, The Guardian Online, available at http://www.theguardian.com/media/2005/nov/19/advertising.marketingandpr (Accessed 28.05.14).

4. Op. Cit. no.1, at 1:15.

5. What's believed to be particularly clever here is the recognition that a jarring of tone would occur were they to seek to weave in something as politically pointy as Obamacare. Just as with many product placements, trying to sneak under the radar can cause messages to stand out even more - just watch any recent James Bond movie as evidence. If this occurs the immersion in the content can be disrupted, and viewers may reject the message almost out of principle - "I thought this was just a funny interview, but it's just another stupid attempt to get me to sign up to that crappy Obamacare." So instead, by deliberately drawing attention to the plug in a manner in keeping with the rest of the comedic piece, they retain the audience's attention throughout delivery of the message.

6. As noted by White House Senior Communications Advisor Tara McGuiness on her Twitter account. McGuiness, T. (2014), Twitter, Available at https://twitter.com/HealthCareTara (Accessed 17.05.14).

7. Levy. J (2014), U.S. Uninsured Rate Drops, Gallup, Available at http://www.gallup.com/poll/168821/uninsured-rate-drops.aspx (Accessed 30.05.14).

8. Isquith, E. (2014), Bill O'Reilly: Abraham Lincoln wouldn't Have Done "Between Two Ferns", Salon.com, Available at http://www.salon.com/2014/03/12/bill_oreilly_abraham_lincoln_wouldnt_have_done_between_two_ferns/ (Accessed 25.05.14).

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Johnson, T. (2014), President Obama Defends Doing Funny or Die's "Between Two Ferns", Variety.com, Available at phttp://variety.com/2014/biz/news/president-obama-defends-doing-funny-or-dies-between-two-ferns-1201140586 (Accessed 01.06.14).

12. Though Calvin Coolidge was the first to deliver a presidential address solely through radio in 1923.

13. High point of 74 Estimated by Nielsen - Webley, K. (2010), How the Nixon-Kennedy Debate changed the World, Time, Available at http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2021078,00.html (Accessed 31.05.14).

14. Granted there were external factors in play here, however the debates were widely believed to be a key factor in securing the Presidency.

15. Mary Ferrell Foundation (date unknown), Kennedy-Nixon Debates, Available at https://www.maryferrell.org/wiki/index.php/Kennedy-Nixon_Debates (Accessed 30.05.14).

16. A simple example of how this could be used in the next election race would be for a candidate to be able to reach swing state voters with topically relevant messages throughout a campaign. By targeting internet users via their IP addresses, Sarah Palin could send Ohio messages on climate change, whilst over in Virginia they're seeing videos on education. Being able to optimise the messages that are served based on interactions, social shares etc, allows her to understand what is hitting and missing in every state, whilst having the benefit of creating a consistent and more personal presence in each state, than the 2/3 visits she might be able to make on the campaign trail that are supported by broad national messages in debates etc.

17. Yours truly very much included here.

18. Smith, M. (2014), Political Twitter Gaffes: 8 Politicians for Whom too Many Tweets Made a T***, Available at http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/political-twitter-gaffes-8-politicians-3466777 (Accessed 31.05.14).

19. Ibid.