How would Israeli campaign videos play in the States?
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How would Israeli campaign videos play in the States?

American political communications experts offer critique of Netanyahu and Bennett’s attempts at winning votes with witty clips

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu in his 'Bibi-sitter' ad uploaded to YouTube on January 31, 2015. (screen capture: YouTube/Benjamin Netanyahu)
Benjamin Netanyahu in his 'Bibi-sitter' ad uploaded to YouTube on January 31, 2015. (screen capture: YouTube/Benjamin Netanyahu)

Israelis will long remember Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trying to control a bunch of misbehaving kindergartners (miniature versions of his political rivals) in one election clip and showing up at a couple’s apartment offering his “Bibi-sitter” services in another. Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett disguised as an overly apologetic Tel Aviv hipster is also an image that is now engraved on the brains of Israeli voters.

This election season has already produced a number of memorable humorous viral video campaign ads starring political candidates who are apparently unafraid of donning costumes and delivering punch lines.

However, in today’s globalized world the Bibi-sitter and the unapologetic hipster have become known—thanks to the power of social media—to people well beyond Israel’s borders. These videos are even making the rounds in America among political communication experts.

So what do those who are accustomed to critiquing American campaign TV spots and viral videos think about these Israeli clips?

The Times of Israel sent four of the most popular videos (three put out by the Likud and one by Jewish Home) to an academic, a media analyst and a film curator for their opinions. We sent them versions of the videos with English-language captions, including the one in which Netanyahu appears as a kindergarten teacher, which has been banned by Israel’s Central Elections Committee for using children in political advertising.

David Schwartz, chief curator of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York and curator of its “The Living Room Candidate” online exhibition of presidential campaign commercials 1952-2012, called the Israeli videos “a nice try,” but poorly executed — particularly those featuring Netanyahu.

“These videos humanize the politicians, but they feel very contrived, scripted and artificial,” he said. “They’re clumsy. People can see right through them, and I can’t imagine they’re effective.”

On the other hand, Mallory A. Russell, the San Francisco-based director of content for Visible Measures, a video analytics startup, thinks that production values are not as important as whether a video ends up generating mainstream media coverage — something the Bibi and Bennett videos have done.

‘These videos humanize the politicians, but they feel very contrived, scripted and artificial’

A viral campaign video does not have to deal with party platforms or political issues in-depth to make an impact. Russell pointed to a controversial video from the last US elections as an example: “Squeal” from now-freshman Senator Joni Ernst, which talked about pig castration.

“In terms of political campaigns, it had pretty decent viewership and it sparked a lot of user-generated content. But, more importantly, it generated a huge amount of media coverage,” Russell said.

“The name of the game in the US during the last election was to be controversial or create a video with a big surprise in it, in order to drive mainstream media coverage. As you are seeing in this election in Israeli, issues didn’t always take center stage,” said Russell.

While the Israeli videos take digs at political opponents, Russell found them to be subtler than what she sees in American campaign videos. It’s also clear to her that the relatively long Israeli videos are made for a younger, Internet-savvy generation that, unlike previous generations who had information pushed at them in 30-second TV commercials, can do its own research on the issues.

The longer format of the viral videos is deliberate, but not necessarily geared toward delving in to the issues.

‘If a voter grabs on to that personality, that brand, they are more willing to sit down and dive into a candidate’s views on the issues that matter’

“There are no restrictions on a candidate’s ability to tell a story. You might think that a candidate would or should use that to really delve into the issues, but what we are seeing here is that they are using the time to build a brand and a rapport that engages voters,” Russell explained.

“If a voter grabs on to that personality, that brand, they are more willing to sit down and dive into a candidate’s views on the issues that matter,” she added.

Curator Schwartz said he personally would not be taken with Netanyahu on the basis of the videos. In particular, he found the video in which the prime minister tries to poke fun at and be dismissive of the scandals his opponents accuse him of to be too much like a parody from a sketch comedy TV show.

“A sitting prime minister in a comedy sketch is a miscalculation — at least it would be in the US,” Schwartz said.

“Overall, my impression of Netanyahu was diminished by these ads. In them, he doesn’t project an image of real strength and seriousness,” he said.

On the contrary, Schwartz did find the Bennett ad to be more effective, if too long.

“It was clever and fairly well executed. It showed more respect for the audience’s intelligence, raising the question of what not apologizing means in the political sense,” he said.

‘Attacks conveyed in a low-key, humorous tone are more likely to sustain attention and less likely to be perceived as unfair’

Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, liked the humor used to attack the character and temperament of opponents that she saw in the Israeli videos. She said the humor does not mask the embedded assumptions about how the candidates would deal with substantive issues.

“Attacks conveyed in a low-key, humorous tone are more likely to sustain attention and less likely to be perceived as unfair than direct hard-hitting attacks making the same points,” she said.

Schwartz thinks the Bennett video succeeds specifically for this reason.

“It made its point in a not heavy-handed way,” he said. “I actually laughed at it.”

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