Why The Second Social Media Election Is The First Post-Paid-Media Election

Oh, for the good old days of 2008, when the presidential race between then Sen. Barack Obama and still Sen. John McCain was dubbed the “first social media election.”

Gaze at this excited recounting of how social media played a role in campaign 2008, from BusinessWeek on Nov. 5 of that year: “Many voters used social media sites simply to celebrate the voting process with friends. Nowhere was that more evident than on social networking site Facebook, which kept a running tally of users who checked a box on the site to declare to their friends that they voted … Other Facebook users sent each other virtual Obama or McCain buttons, or pledged their support to either candidate with wall posts on their respective pages.”

Isn’t that quaint?

Now let’s fast-forward to 2012 and the second social media election -- the one where social gets ugly. Earlier this week, Howard Fineman of The Huffington Post wrote: “Mitt Romney has become the PSY of presidential politics. And that's bad news for the Republican candidate on the 48th day before Election Day.

‘PSY ‘(Park Jae-sang) is, of course, the South Korean rapper whose ‘Gangnam Style’ dance video has generated an astounding 220 million YouTube views and rocketed him to global popularity virtually overnight.”

Only problem for Romney, of course, is that the video that has suddenly made him so “popular” is that infamous one in which he knocks 47 % of Americans, a video made all the juicier – for those seeking fresh Romney juice – because it was shot secretly at a fundraiser, from an odd, faraway camera angle on a smartphone with wait staff (as if extras representing the 47%) walking back and forth in front of the lens.

According to Fineman, the HuffPo’s story about the video garnered “far and away” the most comments ever on the site, a whopping 150,000. While that has been the big story this week, when you think about it, social media has been as deeply embedded in the election as whoever-it-was who shot that video. For instance, there was that tweet last week before from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo – as it faced the wrath of Egyptians protesting an online video denigrating Mohammed -- which caused quite a reaction from Team Romney. In terms of the presidential election, social media isn’t for passing along cute little badges anymore. It is often at the center of events.

But believe it or not, my point isn’t to bash Mitt Romney -- he just happens to be caught in the cross-hairs of social media ubiquity, where distribution and content aren’t exactly carefully planned.

But here’s what we, as marketers and advertisers, should keep an eye on as the election campaign goes into its final weeks: what we may be witnessing is not just the second social media election, but perhaps the first post-paid media election, where much of the news making doesn’t flow through official channels. The over-the-top political ads are becoming white noise.

That is not to suggest that candidates and Super PACS will stop spending money on political advertising; of course, entities representing both parties are engaging in their most expensive paid media campaigns ever, with, according to one report, $2.5 billion being spent on the presidential election, and $5.8 billion being spent in the election cycle.

Despite that fact, it seems that what we’re really seeing is the power of social media over paid media. The packaging, positive or negative, that comes with the official marketing and PR of campaigning seems less and less real when contrasted with the unscripted world of social. Of course, official campaigning was never known for its resemblance to reality, but in previous elections -- even four years ago -- social media didn’t provide the counterbalance that it does today.

In August of 2008, Facebook had only 100 million users, Twitter closed out 2008 with roughly five million users; and U.S. smartphone penetration hovered at around 20%.

Those numbers would never be a match for $5.8 billion, but now that social media is ubiquitous -- Facebook alone has grown almost tenfold since 2008 -- paid political advertising may have finally met its match.

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