How the Obamas won the Internet: When viral videos become viral messages

POTUS and FLOTUS push programs by embracing absurd

WASHINGTON, D.C. - What do screaming goats, ice buckets and the Obamas have in common? They have all gone viral. The Internet has become a bizarre universe where the First Lady and pop stars collide. Where President Obama stone faces Zach Galifianakis as he asks what should be done about North IKEA. The Obamas have effectively become the United States’ unhip Internet parents. They make outdated pop culture references, have absolutely no shame, and yes, they sometimes embarrass you. But beneath that there's a powerful marketing tool for their initiatives.

In the latest chapter in this divisive campaign, Michelle Obama slow danced with Big Bird to Aerosmith and pushed shrieking pop culture guru Billy Eichner around in a shopping cart as he read Gwyneth Paltrow’s 1999 Oscar acceptance speech for “Shakespeare in Love.”

FLOTUS teamed up with Eichner to promote her new healthy eating program that encourages (read: bribes) kids to eat fruits and vegetables packaged with “Sesame Street” characters. Even in the mélange of absurdity that message isn’t lost. You walk away from the video – shot in the produce section of a D.C. supermarket – with the unshakable knowledge that Mrs. Obama expects you to do better than Kraft mac n’ cheese tonight.

This new approach could be a response to the public’s changing media diet. Although television is still the public’s main source for news, viewership is declining. According to 2013 data, Fox News claims the most prime-time viewership at 1.75 million, which is more than competitors CNN and MSNBC combined. Compare that to Obama’s latest BuzzFeed video, which raked in 15 million views in its first 8 hours.

Unlike stagnant, talking-head announcements, these videos are shareable. Which would you be more inclined to post on a friend’s wall – a televised press conference reminding you about the ACA enrollment deadline or a video of the president of the United States throwing finger guns? And with 30 percent of the population getting news from Facebook, a viral video could be the most effective PSA.


Just as he did with Zach Galifianakis the year before, Obama turned to BuzzFeed for a last-minute push before the Affordable Care Act’s open-enrollment deadline. Taking a contrarian’s POV, the resulting video made Obama look just as idiotic as anyone else who still uses the word “YOLO.” But he managed to repeat the enrollment deadline three times in less than 2 minutes. Could Obama’s selfies be the reason for this year’s record? There’s no “BuzzFeed sent me here” box to check on enrollment, but the president’s repeat strategy could say something about its effectiveness.

Naturally, a selfie-stick wielding president has drawn a fair share of criticism. 

But those critics are largely ignoring the message behind it all. No one logically believes that the Obamas are contributing to the vast well of Internet absurdity just for the hell of it. They’re willing to loosen up a little for the sake of promoting what they believe is the greater good. Yes, it’s different than what we’ve seen before, but it just might be crazy enough to work.

But, who knows, maybe the Obamas have permanently tainted the absolutely pristine valor of the presidency! One thing we do know for sure - they’ve won the Internet. 

[Also by Abby Johnston: PAC names -- who comes up with this stuff?]

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