Tim Pawlenty’s now defunct presidential campaign stood out online because of one thing in particular: the video. As early as January 2011, the GOP candidate’s campaign attempted to make a splash with YouTube videos. If the former Minnesota Governor’s persona was a bit blasé, his videos would be anything but.
Pawlenty’s digital campaign also was among the more experimental of the Republican hopefuls, trying new forms of Facebook advertising and using online game elements to reward supporters for taking actions such as sharing a pro-T-Paw message on Facebook or calling an Iowa voter.
But video was the signature element of the digital effort. The Pawlenty camp produced a steady stream of around 20 online-only videos leading up to the Iowa Straw Poll held August 13, not including the more standard postings of clips from TV appearances and campaign events. Pawlenty’s early-and-often approach to video, and the dynamic, unique style of those motion picture productions signified the video-heavy focus of the 2012 election. And, some might say the campaign’s dedication to the craft of online political short-film inspired others to take web video seriously.
Pawlenty ducked out of the 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination following a distant third-place finish in the non-binding poll, considered a bellwether for the health of GOP presidential campaigns.
The man behind Pawlenty’s groundbreaking videos is Lucas Baiano, who got to know Pawlenty while working as director of visual media and film for The Republican Governors Association. “He knew what I was capable of,” said Baiano of the former Minnesota Governor. “He recognized the potential of social media and visual media.”
Baiano got his start in political video through an attempt to produce a video in support of a Democrat – Hillary Clinton – during her ’08 presidential primary campaign.
As Pawlenty’s creative director, Baiano was given the freedom to explore, he said. “We wanted to differentiate ourselves from other campaigns.” Baiano’s video style generated lots of buzz early on, and appeared to directly influence other campaign video. Baiano, recently returned from Ames, Iowa where the Straw Poll was held, spoke with ClickZ this afternoon from Washington, D.C. The filmmaker, in his early-20s, trekked along the campaign trail with other staffers, visiting key states including Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Ohio, Florida, and New York, and shooting video at campaign events to supplement other images used in his videos. “That alone brought a lot to the table, with me being able to identify with the everyday American,” said Baiano, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada.
Campaign Worked with Facebook to Test New Ads
In May, the Pawlenty camp began using a relatively new form of Facebook advertising, Sponsored Stories, and the campaign’s D.C.-based digital political consultancy Engage worked in conjunction with the social media firm to test other new formats. The Sponsored Stories ads pulled in the latest status update made on Pawlenty’s Facebook page, and dynamically created ads featuring the post in ad copy. The ads enticed users to hit “like,” which in turn notified their friends of the liking action within their news feeds. The goal was to ensure that news about the former Minnesota Governor’s official campaign announcement surfaced when his likers were on Facebook.
In 2007, Mitt Romney’s campaign also displayed a dedication to innovative online advertising. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Mindy Finn, now a partner at Engage, served as Romney for President’s e-strategy director at the time.
The Pawlenty camp also tried out a game platform developed by Engage to help spur action among key supporters. The platform awarded volunteers with virtual badges and real-world prizes such as mugs and a Pawlenty hockey jersey. A leaderboard connected to the Facebook profiles of volunteers ranked them according to the number of actions they took: Five points and an “Advocate” badge for a Facebook post, and 25 points for another Facebook message supporting the candidate, for example.
More than just revving-up supporters, the game system allowed the Pawlenty team to track volunteer activities to microtarget ads and emails, and identify active volunteers who could later be tapped to travel for door-to-door canvassing, or donate. The Pawlenty for President campaign also ran Google AdWords and YouTube overlay ads. One Google search ad from Pawlenty suggests people “join” the campaign, “Because the truth is America is in serious trouble.”
That “America is in trouble” message, a theme of Pawlenty’s stump speeches, made it into several of his videos. In many of the videos, talk of his executive experience and Christian faith, in addition to freedom and American exceptionalism was partnered with images of approving supporters, soldiers, crosses, the Statue of Liberty, and old footage of Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King.
An Early Dedication to Captivating Video
The first video, “Courage to Stand,” launched by Pawlenty’s Freedom First PAC in January before Pawlenty declared his candidacy, remains the most popular with more than 253,000 views. Set to a score of symphonic bluster, explosive sounds, and stirring rhetoric from Pawlenty, the video garnered attention from media observers for its similarities to theatrical trailers for action flicks like “Black Hawk Down” and “Independence Day.”
Although many of the videos employed what became a signature herky-jerky, action-packed style, others were more serene. A 6-minute video featuring the candidate and his wife discussing their faith and thoughts on the separation of church and state was simply a calm close-up of the couple.
Meanwhile, Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney – who didn’t participate in the Straw Poll – has hammered away at a jobs message in his videos since his campaign began posting them to YouTube in April. Pawlenty’s final web video – “The American Comeback Begins” – was posted the day of the Straw Poll. Led with an economy message, the video featured a theme the Romney camp has harnessed in some of his videos since June. “I’m an American, not a bump in the road,” insist several people in a Romney video. The concept is based on a suggestion by President Barack Obama that “There are always going to be bumps on the road to recovery.”
The Comeback video includes a clip of Obama stating, “There are always going to be bumps,” as a camera closes in on an orange road sign warning, “Bump.”
In all, the Pawlenty campaign attracted more than 1 million upload views on YouTube. The GOP frontrunners, however, have drawn far fewer views. Michele Bachmann’s and Ron Paul’s YouTube channels have drawn around 716,000 and 718,000 upload views respectively. Romney – whose campaign has been far more prolific in the video category compared to Bachmann and Paul – has garnered more than 911,000. Ultimately, most campaigns including Pawlenty’s hope to generate video plays and coverage of the videos on cable and broadcast television.
A Lasting Influence?
Though Pawlenty’s novel approach to video may have influenced the other GOP campaigns, it shows that use of viral video doesn’t necessarily make or break a campaign. Straw Poll winner Michele Bachmann’s team has posted very few produced videos, all of them using a traditional style featuring the candidate speaking into the camera. Her campaign did aim lots of online advertising including pre-roll video ads at Straw Poll voters, however.
Close second in the poll, Ron Paul has yet to post a produced video made exclusively for the web. Still, the Paul campaign seems to have been influenced by Pawlenty’s videos. A recent TV spot mimics a movie trailer, and like many of the mini-films produced by Baiano for Pawlenty, employs quick moving images, TV-like static, and showcases the candidate at odd angles.
Baiano’s work also appears to have a descendant in a spot from Canada’s Conservative Party, which won big in the country’s May election. Though he said he had nothing to do with the “Our Country” ad, Baiano said he believes his Pawlenty video style was a direct influence. Other observers agreed.
In “decompression” mode, Baiano is just now evaluating what his next move will be. When asked whether any other GOP campaigns have approached him, he responded, “possibly.”
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