We've established my left-leaning bias, but I think that President Obama did a great job last night at the debate. He connected personally more than in past appearances and elections. He was smart. He was ready to engage Mitt Romney, to point out where the Governor’s plan didn't add up, and then explain what his own plan was. He came ready for a fight – to the point that my own mother e-mailed and said that she had to watch a Liam Neeson movie because the violence was just too much.
The debate touched on a few things that hadn't been discussed in previous debates, or not in depth. There were job questions, but there were also questions about immigration, women’s rights, energy, foreign policy, and gun rights. The Libya timeline goof in particular was a hot topic on social media last night and this morning.
But when I scrolled through my Twitter feed this morning on the metro, there was nothing about Mitt Romney opposing Lily Ledbetter. There were no mentions of gun control and automatic weapons, or the DREAM Act and immigration. Aside from Think Progress replaying the Libya goof, the thing I saw most often was Mitt Romney’s “Binder full of Women” comment.
Within the hour and a half of the debate, the Twitter handle @RomneysBinderwas registered and had over 10,000 followers. The websites “Bindersfullofwomen.com” and “Bindersfullofwomen.net” were purchased – the .net account leads to the DNC’s Romney Tax Plan site, and the .com account is already filled with Romney’s past policy decisions on women’s issues like health care, equal pay, abortion and child care, as well as his judicial nomination record regarding women (fun fact – it was snapped up within 90 seconds of the comment in the debate). And I’ve seen people on Facebook musing about how to do this for a Halloween costume.
It’s an Internet craze in the way that Big Bird was in the last debate – it started as an off-hand, throw-away comment by Governor Romney that turned into a full-blown Internet and pop culture meme. Even the Obama administration used the meme in this election ad:
Both of the debate memes – Big Bird and Binders – had some sort of nostalgia factor associated with them, which I think made them so effective in reaching voters. Sesame Street – and Big Bird in particular - is a multigenerational touchstone for debate viewers; according to the show's website, over 74 million people in the US alone have "graduated" from Sesame Street. The idea of “firing” Big Bird is a great image.
The Binder comment seemed to catch the attention of my generation the most. The memes of binders of women this morning ranged from the rainbow unicorn-covered Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers with the caption “Trap Her, Keep Her” to a binder full of women in Pokemon-style trading cards with strength and weakness point values assigned to each woman. It harkened back to kids on a school bus putting stickers on their Mead 5 Stars, and trading their friends a Charizard for Jigglypuff (which is a weak trade, by the way).
This creation of political memes may not be "big picture" game changers, but they get attention and they keep attention. Big Bird on the unemployment line made people pay attention to PBS and public broadcasting, and the wide-reaching benefits of educational television for children. And the “binder full of women” meme is ridiculous, but it does show voters the gender disparity in employment and wages.
It’s clear that these memes are moving people towards learning more about issues, but progressives have to be careful how they use them. These jokes work best in their natural environment: the Internet. An animated .gif, a captioned photo or demotivational poster, or viral video work best on the web – it’s more difficult to translate them to TV and make them sound as clever or meaningful. The only television exception, in my view, is late night television - what's clever and viral online often plays well on shows like Letterman, Leno, and Jimmy Fallon.
A cautionary tale of this internet-to-television move is Obama's Big Bird ad – yes, it’s funny, and it points out the larger picture: that Romney is willing to cut something like PBS, which barely makes a dent in the federal budget every year. Online, it's funny. On television, it sounds ridiculous, and it comes off as too jokey, and not serious enough, for an official presidential ad. If a super PAC had released it without the president's name associated with it, or if the Obama administration had kept it online as a viral video, it could have been more effective.
As long as there are people with Photoshop skills, social media know-how and a twisted sense of humor, there will be political memes. And thank God – sometimes it takes a picture of school supplies full of women to make you think about the issues. But if we want them to work for us, we need to learn how to harness the power and make sure they play to the right audience.