With New Film, Obama Hopes For Viral Video Boost

There was a big movie premier Thursday — big in the political world, anyway. This movie is actually an ad of sorts, designed in hopes that it will go viral and help President Obama’s re-election prospects.

People have viewed the video of Nora the piano-playing cat 23.6 million times on YouTube. They’ve viewed singer Will.i.am’s video 23.7 million times. One of those videos helped Obama get elected. One of them did not.

Those two wildly popular — and wildly different — videos show just how difficult it can be to calculate the exact formula of a viral video. But the Obama re-election campaign has tried to master the recipe with its new 17-minute film, The Road We’ve Traveled.

Hollywood star power? Check. Tom Hanks narrates. Suspense and drama? Check.

This biographical film is directly related to the kinds of movies that campaigns used to make for a party’s nominating convention. But the digital era makes it a new beast altogether.

“YouTube is the third-most-visited website in the world, with users of YouTube spending roughly 15-20 minutes a day watching videos, so when we want to reach people with a visual story like that, we’re going online,” says Becki Donatelli, a Republican social media strategist.

It’s not just a static viewing experience. The Obama team is doing everything in its power to give this video tentacles. The campaign says there were more than 300 viewing parties across the country Thursday night. For weeks, the re-election website has encouraged people to “sign up to be the first to see the full film.” That sign-up information goes into the campaign’s database, and the website makes it easy for you to tweet the film, post it on your Facebook page, or give money.

“So you create this cascading effect of fans of the president watching it via email, and then you have friends of those friends who see it and re-share it,” says Kombiz Lavasany, a Democratic digital-strategy consultant. “That’s what we talk about when we talk about a video going viral. It’s authentic enough. It speaks to its audience, and people feel compelled to re-share it.”

The goal is to ultimately reach beyond the echo chamber of enthusiastic Obama supporters to the undecided independent voters who will determine the outcome of this election.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has mocked the video on the campaign trail.

“The president’s people have put together a 17-minute infomercial,” he said recently. “They’re calling it a documentary. I don’t think so. It’s an infomercial.”

He dismisses the production as propaganda that ignores Obama’s failings.

“I have some suggestions for the president and for the producer: First of all, talk to the 24 million Americans who are out of work or underemployed in this country,” he said.

But at the White House on Thursday, spokesman Jay Carney predicted the video will have staying power.

“I look forward to seeing it many times in my spare time of which i don’t have enough,” he said.

He said he doesn’t know whether the president has seen it yet, and he’s not aware of any plans for a White House viewing party.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.