“Political Video Smackdown”

During the 1984 Super Bowl, Apple Computers ran an ad that has become deservedly famous.  The ad, directed by Ridley Scott, portrayed a Orwellian society–complete with huge image of Big Brother–being smashed by a young female athlete and promised "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh.  And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’"

Now that ad has been remixed (a "mashup" in blog vernacular) into an ad attacking Sen. Hillary Clinton and promoting Sen. Barack Obama.  The image of Big Brother has been replaced with an image of Sen. Clinton, and the new tagline reads, "On Jan. 14, the Democratic primary will begin.  And you’ll see why 2008 won’t be like ‘1984.’"  The anonymously produced mashup can be seen here, though you should watch the original first if you’ve never seen it.

As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, the remix is getting people’s attention:

"It may be the most stunning and creative attack ad yet for a 2008 presidential candidate — one experts say could represent a watershed moment in 21st century media and political advertising."

We think this is great news; barriers to citizen activism are being broken down.  Thanks to the Internet revolution, anyone with a computer, a clever idea, and a little know-how can compete with the best professionally produced ads.  But while we applaud these innovations in political advertising and communication, we doubt the reform community will see this as an encouraging development.  More likely, they’ll see it as "just the latest attempt by outside activists to influence political campaigns–or the newest way for campaigns to anonymously attack their opponents."  Indeed, Professor Rick Hasen has already expressed concern that the video is "[t]otally anonymous–no disclaimer."  Hasen also links to an article raising specific concerns about the role corporations and unions might play in an unregulated Internet.

We do not share Hasen’s concerns about Internet regulation generally, and in this case, we find them particularly misplaced.  Broadly speaking, the rationale for treating corporations and unions differently than individuals is that they tend to be wealthier and their wealth is the result of certain state-conferred benefits.  As a result, so the argument goes, they can disproportionately influence elections or "drown out" other speakers.  While we reject these arguments, they are utterly inapplicable to the 1984 ad.  What the 1984 ad and similar viral videos demonstrate is that, regardless of how much money might be spent producing advertising for the Internet, very little money need be spent to produce effective ads.  Equally important, when distributed through YouTube or other similar services, as the 1984 ad was, the cost of distribution (zero) is identical for corporations, unions, and individuals.  Simply put, in the world of viral video, corporate and union wealth is largely irrelevant.

With everyone on the same footing, we don’t see how the reform community can show the corruption or its appearance necessary to sustain regulation, even under the broad definition of "disproportionate influence" as "corruption."  Nevertheless, we doubt the reform community can long resist such a target.  The trifecta of influence, anonymity, and negativity is simply too tempting.  That’s a shame, because this "watershed moment in 21st century media and political advertising" is not a "problem" to be "solved" by reform; it is cause for celebration.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.