Here’s the brief: Communicate to women in a succinct and visually appealing way how, at every stage of their lives, Barack Obama’s policies would be more beneficial to them than those of his Republican opponent.
For the Obama advertising team, the solution was simple: create a non-descript fictional everywoman and show her at defining moments of her life: going to school, opening a small business, enjoying affordable prescription medication as a senior. The everywoman, named “Julia,” was shown in a meticulously designed, retro-chicly illustrated, presumably female-focus-grouped interactive slideshow.
From ages 3 to 67, we see Julia taking advantage of every policy that would be in place should Obama be reelected, while being informed of everything Mitt Romney has said he’d do away with should he win the presidency. The Obama campaign called it “The Life of Julia,” and uploaded it to their website Thursday morning.
For everyone working at Obama campaign headquarters, I’m sure it was considered a communications slam dunk.
By Thursday afternoon, the conservative Twittersphere had judged it an abomination, deeming Julia’s life completely antithetical to the American ethos of self-reliance, an embodiment of the European-style, cradle-to-grave welfare state. “The life of #julia: Entitlement, dependency, with distribution,” sneered pundit Michelle Malkin. “Sad and pathetic,” added Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. And on down the line.
Within hours of the slideshow’s release, even The New York Times had to admit that any praise coming from Obama supporters was “largely overwhelmed” by “sarcastic” comments from the president’s critics.
By the end of the day—at least from a political marketing perspective—The Life of Julia appeared to be all but over.
Or was it?
Outside of the conservative echo chamber, the response was markedly different.
"Julia" “is a very effective form of communication,” veteran Democratic consultant Bob Shrum told me Friday, saying Julia clarified the clear choice between the candidates on a whole set of issues relating to women, tying in with what he said was the overall theme of the Obama campaign: “who is going to stand up and fight for you?”
Far from discouraged, Shrum seemed heartened by the conservative response: “I sure wish Romney would go out in this campaign and say, ‘I don’t want the government providing these prenatal services to women. I don’t want the government providing programs for kids to go to college. I don’t want the government providing Medicare as a single guaranteed system that protects seniors.’”
Shrum makes a good point. While advocating for a life that’s continually dependent on government intervention is generally considered political suicide in America, explicitly proposing the opposite seems equally as damaging.
To avoid the issue altogether, Shrum predicts that the Republicans will take the campaign “to a level of abstraction” he doesn’t think “is very persuasive to voters.”
He is convinced that “what’s powerful about the Obama slide show is that it deals in specifics that people very much care about.”
Randall Rothenberg, the president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the American trade association for interactive marketing, was equally as enthusiastic about the slideshow’s potential, seeing it as a better medium for communicating the campaign’s message. “It’s not a thirty second TV spot which has a lot of opprobrium attached to it now,” he asserted, saying the form was effectively a Powerpoint presentation—a 2012 version of Ross Perot’s flip charts.
“Perot was all about the economy, and what crystallized it for people was his famous flip charts where he was talking about the deficits and other parts of the economy.”
"Julia," Rothenberg argues, similarly “uses the language of business communications to make political policy points. But,” he adds, “it does so in a way that is obviously aimed at a broader general market.”
Rothenberg predicts that slideshows will “become a factor of this campaign because they seem business-like, factual and they’re to-the-point. They allow you to communicate in ways that seemingly have less of the emotional manipulation of video.”
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake also sees the slideshow as an effective way to convey policy differences between Obama and Romney, and what those would mean to women.
“People are in a very serious mood,” she says. “They really want to know the facts. Women, in particular, are saying that it’s increasingly difficult to get information.”
“What is really important here is that [the Obama campaign] is giving women information that they’re able to pass on to their friends and family.” According to Lake’s research, “one third of women today say that they get their information from friends and family.”
The slideshow is effective, she says, because it’s “not like an economics professor delivering a lecture to you. It has cultural cues that seem in touch” with women. She added that it’s slick style—think Real Simple magazine meets airline safety instruction card meets Daria—makes it something women would send to others.
“Right now, women don’t share political information very much. They share other kinds of information like what their favorite purchases are, what happened to the kids today, about a repairman that worked.”
“News you can use is what women tend to pass on,” she says.
For all the snide comments from the right, the word is getting passed on. In just two days, "The Story of Julia" has been liked over 37,000 times on Facebook and #Julia has had over 20,000 mentions on Twitter.
Clearly, this imaginary woman has made an impact. Just how real it is, remains to be seen.