A day after Ivanka Trump posted an online commencement address that was scrapped by a Kansas university, a different version appeared on Twitter that also generated a great deal of attention.
It was a spot that, among other things, interspersed her words with scenes of cops firing smoke canisters and pepper balls to clear out Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Square and soldiers occupying the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. From the group MeidasTouch.com, the video, with a hashtag of #ByeIvanka, generated more than 6.5 million views.
MeidasTouch.com is a new political action committee that is the brainchild of three brothers who believe that they have hit on a formula for drawing attention: Using Donald Trump’s words against him, or those of his family.
“There is a thematic piece that goes throughout the videos — we use real pictures and real imagery and juxtapose them with their words,” said Ben Meiselas, a partner at Geragos & Geragos who represented Colin Kaepernick’s lawsuit and settlement with the NFL. Also spearheading the videos are his brother Brett, who served as head of digital post-production on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Jordan, who works in marketing and advertising in New York.
The #ByeIvanka video, Brett Meiselas said, came on a day when “we woke up and we were talking to each other and saying, ‘What are we going to do today?’ ” Seeing the speech, he said, “I was just amazed how out of touch and tone deaf the speech was.”
Other content creators are also jumping in the fray. Author Don Winslow recently produced a spot that showed how the White House was pinning the blame for the coronavirus on the Chinese Communist Party.
And if 2016 is any guide, these types of videos, made outside a political campaign or candidate-backed super PAC, are what we will see a lot more of as the election nears. By the fall of that year, creatives from Hollywood and Madison Avenue were flooding the zone with short spots, many aimed at getting out the vote and many also featuring a smattering of celebrities. They became so prevalent that after the election, Tina Fey quipped, sarcastically, that the real reason Hillary Clinton lost was there were “not enough celebrity music videos urging people to vote.”
But Ben Meiselas believes that they are filling a need for more progressive voices “connecting hard-hitting messages to the public in a way that looks like movie trailers.” Most of the videos have background music with the same intensity of those theatrical previews.
He said that one of the keys to their strategy is to turn around the videos quickly — in a span of about two to three hours. On the day that Trump went golfing for the first time since March, they produced a video called “Trump Golfs, You Die,” and it generated about 1.5 million Twitter views. The Biden campaign, which has been ramping up its digital operations, introduced a slightly less hard-hitting and shorter spot on the same day, with 4.4 million Twitter views.
“We use a scalpel in developing our message, but the final product is a sledgehammer in telling the world what the truth is of what is going on,” Brett Meiselas said.
On Thursday, they quickly turned around a video that played off of Trump’s remarks on a trip to Dallas, where he again talked about the need to make a show of force amid nationwide protests. “We’re dominating the street with compassion,” he said, as the video interspersed his words with clips of cops attacking demonstrators. By Thursday night, the video’s hashtag, #uglypresident, was trending on Twitter, and by Friday morning it had 1.8 million views.
One of their first videos, “Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?,” which used Ronald Reagan’s famous 1980 debate remark and interspersed it with footage of food lines and empty store shelves from this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. It registered 2.1 million views after it was posted April 22.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. But Breitbart.com, the right-wing populist news site, took notice after the Ivanka Trump video, running a story with the headline, “Colin Kaepernick Attorney’s Political Action Committee Attacks Ivanka Trump Over Virtual Commencement Address.”
The question is, do these views have an impact?
The three brothers do not have any history in politics, and say that they want to motivate the Democratic base and also reach those on the fence. Ben Meiselas said that they do plan to get into voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts as the election nears.
Mathew Littman, political strategist and former speechwriter for Biden, said that ultimately the web videos “only make sense as far as you are getting people to vote. It is easy to make fun of Trump. The question is, what are you doing about it?”
Tim Miller, who was communications director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign and is an adviser to the newly formed group Republican Voters Against Trump, said that he sees the MeidasTouch videos as “more in framing arguments and generating enthusiasm among like-minded people than in persuasion.” He said that such “bottom up” viral content can be important, especially in reaching younger people who may not be habitual voters or avid followers of politics.
Mike Murphy, the Republican strategist, screenwriter and co-director of the USC Center for the Political Future, said that the key for making an impact is when a spot has good creative and good targeting, something that provides voters with new information. “If the messaging is right, you are more likely to move things than just, ‘I hate Trump. Don’t you agree with me?'”
Murphy is also strategic adviser to Republican Voters Against Trump, which recently launched with a series of testimonials from Republicans, conservatives and former Trump voters who explain why they won’t support him in the fall. The collective voices create a more personal impact than a traditional 30-second spot.
According to The Washington Post, the Trump campaign’s response to the group was that they were “Trump haters” who were “sad, pathetic, and irrelevant.” One of the pro-Trump PACs, America First Action, has been spending heavily to solidify the hashtag #BeijingBiden, targeting Biden on China, while the Trump campaign frequently blasts out short clips of the presumptive Democratic nominee stumbling on his words. A 10-second clip of Biden during his speech in Philadelphia drew more than 3.8 million views.
For now, perhaps the surest way to measure whether a web spot is having an impact is Trump himself.
In March, the Trump campaign fired off a legal letter to stations that were airing a spot from Priorities USA Action, a pro-Biden super PAC. But it only boosted the profile of the ad, which used audio of Trump downplaying the coronavirus as a chart showed the rising number of cases. It has generated 16.8 million views on Twitter.
In May, the Lincoln Project, led by another group of anti-Trump Republicans, ran a spot called “Mourning in America” on Fox News in the D.C. market. Trump blasted the group, calling them “losers” and a “disgrace to honest Abe.” The group said that in the aftermath, they raised more than $1.4 million.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.