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Beyond YouTube, Video Puts Users at the Center of the Campaign

By Jose Antonio Vargas
It's official: Because of the Internet, this campaign is really all about us.

Earlier this week, a source sent me an e-mail with the subject line: "Draft Presidential Campaign."

"Just saw a news report that you were on," the e-mail read. "Here is the link: www.News3Online.com." The link led to a news site, News3Online, featuring what appeared to be a short local television news report on a new presidential candidate named...Jose Antonio Vargas.

I sat at my cubicle thinking, "Whoa, hold on, wait a minute. Say, what?"

The TV reporter said: "In a year of firsts for presidential candidates, a phenomenon that has taken even seasoned political analysts by surprise, a growing grassroots movement born on the Internet to elect a virtual unknown to the highest office in the country." The candidacy, the reporter continued, began "on a popular online chat site where a former Maxim model" -- and, as it happens, an Obama Girl look-a-like -- hosts a chat show. In the report, the words "Jose Antonio Vargas '08" are plastered across a billboard, on the side of a bus, on the front page of a newspaper and even tattooed onto the lower back of an elderly woman, in a scene towards the end of the video.

A few seconds after that, it's revealed to all be a trick -- the latest in what's called "viral personalization campaigns." At the end of the video, I'm led to a page that reads: "What to play the joke on your friends? Just fill out the fields below and your friends will receive the same fully personalized experience (email, website and video) via email within seconds!"

The video was created last week by the Vanksen Group, a viral marketing agency that has mostly worked in Europe and recently set shop in New York. Thierry Daher, the company's CEO, created the video for PalTalk, a video chat platform. In an interview, Daher said he can't get enough of the campaign -- "I watch CNN, then FOX, then back to CNN, then back to FOX" -- and has studied how online videos have affected the primaries.

"I come from a business background, not a political background," Daher said. "But what's been hitting the business world has definitely impacted the political world, and it's putting the consumer, the user, the voter, in the driver's seat. In short, it's placing you -- the voter -- at the center of the experience."

With today's technology, Daher added, campaigns could personalize a film thanking supporters for their online donations. He painted a scenario: After, say, Jose gives $25 to Sen. John McCain, a video would pop up. In it, McCain would appear to address Jose by name and take out his cell phone to dial Jose's number -- a number which Jose has just entered into the system while donating. Then, Jose's real phone would magically ring -- with a recording from McCain calling Jose personally to thank him for his donation.

"How freaky would that be?" Daher asked.

Freaky, indeed -- and a sign of the times.

This is the eighth in a series of online columns on our growing "clickocracy," in which we are one nation under Google, with e-mail and video for all. Please send suggestions, comments and tips to vargasj-at-washpost-dot-com.

By Web Politics Editor  |  June 19, 2008; 2:51 PM ET
Categories:  The Clickocracy  
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Next: McCain Sharpens Attack on Obama Over Public Financing

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