June 17, 2008, 4:23 PM — By now, we've all heard about the ways political candidates have used the Web to raise money or connect with voters. But former presidential candidate Mike Gravel turned viral Web marketing into an art form this year.
Long-shot Gravel, a former Democratic senator from Alaska who ran unsuccessfully for both the Democratic and Libertarian nominations this year, used YouTube to reach hundreds of thousands of potential voters, although the YouTube views didn't translate into votes.
Earlier this year, Gravel teamed up with political parody Web site, BarelyPolitical.com for a series of videos. (Warning: Many Barely Political videos contain scantily dressed women, swearing and humor that might not go over well in a work setting.)
That's in addition to more than 100 videos the Gravel campaign posted on YouTube.
Using YouTube isn't particularly unusual for candidates -- Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's campaign has posted more than 1,100 videos on YouTube. Videos from Obama supporters, including musician will.i.am's "Yes, We Can" riff on an Obama speech have also proved popular. (By the way, Barely Political created a spoof of that video, "No, You Can't," targeting Republican president candidate John McCain).
But Gravel took the YouTube thing to a new level in partnering with the often racy and raunchy Barely Political in a series of videos. Barely Political, which introduced Obama Girl (singing, "I've got a crush on Obama") to the world, filmed a video featuring Gravel attempting to convert Obama Girl, Amber Lee Ettinger, to his side. That video, posted to YouTube on May 7, features the 78-year-old Gravel singing to Ettinger and dancing to a hip-hop song.
That first video has generated more than 400,000 views for Barely Political, and since then, the Web site has featured Gravel in five more videos, including outtakes of the original Obama Girl collaboration, with combined views of more than 500,000. "The young people have made me a star on the Internet," Gravel said.
The Barely Political videos, along with a pair of rather obtuse videos featuring Gravel by the Bilinsi Media Partnership, helped raise name recognition, Gravel said. Before YouTube, Gravel was probably best known as an Alaskan senator who entered the secret documents about the Vietnam War called the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record in 1971.
The YouTube videos were important to Gravel's campaign because "our resources were extremely meager," he said. "Obviously, I realized that developing visibility was the key, and I couldn't do it in a conventional fashion."
The Barely Political videos were mostly for laughs, although the first one was filmed when he was still a presidential candidate and in need of publicity, he said. "That was hilarious to spend a day with an attractive young lady, joshing around," Gravel said. "It was fun."
Barely Political creator Ben Relles said Los Angeles director Joe Sabia approached the site about doing videos with Gravel. Barely Political "loved that Mike Gravel was so innovative online during the election," Relles said.
Gravel's long-shot status made him a good candidate for working with Barely Political, Relles added.
"I think in large part because Mike Gravel wasn't a frontrunner, he was willing to take chances," Relles said. "Campaigns are so focused on staying on message and sticking to talking points and slogans, that very often the messages themselves begin to sound overly crafted and vetted. What Mike Gravel did ... was really exciting, he used sites like YouTube to reach an audience through word-of-mouth. Indeed, he's game to try unique ways to communicate a message."
While the Barely Political videos aimed for comedy, the Bilinsi Media Partnership, run by two young art and technology teachers, featured Gravel in videos with a less obvious message.
In one video, viewed more than 560,000 times, Gravel stares into the camera for more than a minute, then picks up a rock and throws it in a pond before walking away. Gravel doesn't speak in the video, but his campaign Web site's URL (Uniform Resource Locator) is on the screen as he walks away from the camera.
In the second Bilinsi video, Gravel is collecting firewood in the wilderness. After he lights a fire, the camera zooms in on the fire and stays there for seven minutes while his campaign site's URL appears on the screen. That video has had more than 157,000 views since it was posted to YouTube in May 2007.
Gravel explains those videos in his own video. The filmmakers wanted to create a "metaphor as an ordinary citizen who acts in an extraordinary way," he said of the rock-in-the-pond video. Gravel also called the video "beautiful" and "very artistic."
Gravel is done running for office, he said. But he's still pushing an antiwar message, and he's focused on reforming government with his advocacy group, the National Institute for Democracy. He'll continue working on those issues "for the rest of my life," he said.
Traditional media has turned into a "flack for American imperialism," so Gravel will continue to look for other ways of getting his message out, including Internet videos, he said.
"When young people dedicated to my campaign wanted to get me involved in a number of things, I would say yes," he said. "I had a very simple criteria: It had to dignified and funny and advance the causes I was interested in."
All the videos were helpful, he added. "I think the future of communication is with the Internet."