Crybaby Speaker John Boehner isn’t known to “Shake It Off.” But that changed last week when his staff posted “12 Taylor Swift GIFs for you,” which gif-splained the reasons why Obama’s idea to provide free community college to all Americans won’t work.
“60 billion dollars is a lot of money,” reads the caption above a hip-popping Swift gif. “You can’t just shake it off.”
This wasn’t the first time Boehner’s team has turned to the language of social media to connect with people. They’re big fans of Buzzfeed-esque listicles, employing them to hit Republican talking points. Shark gifs pepper a post on why Senate Dems shouldn’t ignore the House Republicans’ jobs bill, and moments from How I Met Your Mother break down the budget process.
Corporations are also jacking The Youth’s parlance to sell products—often to hilarious effect. The goal seems to be mimicking teens on social media, by using whatever slang term is “on fleek” at the moment— like “bae” and “bruh.” This strategy has become so notorious, it’s even inspired a Twitter account that pokes fun at it: Brands Saying Bae.
The person who tweeted this is 35 years old and has asked their barber for “the Macklemore” on more than one occasion pic.twitter.com/B6bGnXBP6j
— Brands Saying Bae (@BrandsSayingBae) December 28, 2014
One such brand is Taco Bell, whose owner Greg Creed told investors that “there’s not a millennial that wants to be marketed to.” Instead the focus is engagement: “What everyone wants to have is a dialogue with a brand.”
People want dialogue with their politicians, too, especially during elections. So even though I’m yet to see a politician tweet “bae,” it’s no wonder they turn to a Taco Bell-like strategy: A Pew study that explored social media use during the 2014 campaign season found that more than twice as many Americans followed political candidates on social media than during the 2010 midterms. Supporters of both parties were equally likely to follow politicians.
These Americans are important not just because the largest group are young (ages 18-29). They’re critical because they tend to be more engaged with other aspects of the campaign: more likely to volunteer, make a campaign contribution and encourage their friends to support a candidate.
But what, exactly, do people get out of following a politician on social media, other than news updates? 35 percent say that feeling more personally connected to political candidates or groups is a “major reason.” Though Boehner spokesman Michael Steel wouldn’t tell Business Insider editor Hunter Walker whether Boehner is, in fact, a true Taylor Swift fan, he did nod to this idea in a canned statement:
“We are always looking for fun, effective ways to communicate with the American people about President Obama’s failed policies, and our better solutions,” Steel said. “As Speaker Boehner says, ‘you have to reach people where they are.’”
Of course, a politician using popular culture to seem more relatable is not new; it just used to look more like Bill Clinton busting out the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show” during the 1992 campaign.
Now, as Steel points out, it’s about meeting fresh, new voters where they already are, and that’s online.
In an ideal world, a politician’s cool façade would translate into votes—right, bb? Not so much, if the most recent midterms are any indication. Midterms typically have lower turnout than presidential elections, but 2014 was particularly grim; we saw the lowest voter turnout in more than seven decades. Voter aged 18 to 29 made up only 13 percent of the electorate, and there were 14 million fewer young voters than in 2012.
Still, there’s that one time Millennials made it to the voting booth, that election whose twentysomething turnout has yet to be matched. In 2007, Obama met with a skeptical Marc Andressen, founder of Netscape, and told him about his plans to harness the power of the Internet through online organizing. A year later, he had the votes of 66 percent of those under age 30 and Democratic Party ID among voters aged 18 to 29 was at its highest since 1972.
Laura Olin, a digital campaigner who has worked for the Obamas and Joe Biden, says her clients understand that speaking fluent Internet would be their best bet of “getting people to pay attention to what we were putting out.” But, she says, “we were very conscious of not falling into the trap brands now fall into of trying so hard that they sound utterly lame as a result.”
Indeed, media types have snarked at clumsier attempts. It’s easy to come off as the embarrassing dad trying to sound cool. Olin’s advice for “avoiding lameness is being pretty subtle and choosing our moments carefully.” That means creating the kind of content she would want to read herself. “We were our target demographic—I was 29 when I joined the campaign and my three-person team had an average age of 27,” she says of the 2012 campaign.
Still, if you look at pure followers as an indication of success, perhaps “real America” isn’t really craving subtlety. Denny’s, a shining star among brands who bae, has 177,000 Twitter followers, and serves up tweets like this, which got more than 10,000 retweets:
where’s my bae*
*bacon and eggs 😉
— Denny’s (@DennysDiner) June 28, 2014
So, can politicians—for whom “real America” is the holy grail—scoop up votes this way?
It’s doubtful, given Millennials’ aversion to labels or affiliation. Yes, we are digital natives, but studies also show we’re unattached to organized politics and religion, burdened by debt and distrustful of institutions. A Pew survey revealed that half of Millennials describe themselves as independents, and that this is the highest level of political disaffiliation for any generation in the past quarter century.
That politicians are known for being inauthentic, on the internet or off, doesn’t help win over a jaded generation. Few people are likely fooled that 88-year-old former Michigan Rep. John Dingel—who spent 59 years in congress before retiring this fall—wrote this holiday jingle, or used emojis, or hashtagged #YOLO:
Wife is working late tonight. Might eat ice cream for dinner. #YOLO
— John Dingell (@JohnDingell) January 21, 2015
(Christopher Schuler, who worked on Dingell’s communications team, told me that they worked on his tweets together, though he declined to comment further.)
However, completely fooling people may not be the point. Using this kind of language attempts to say: Even if I didn’t tweet this, I’m surrounded by people who “get it.” And whether or not that means votes, an online following is better than nothing. Dingell, for example, has been hailed the best of political Twitter by media. He had 9,587 followers on Jan. 1 of last year, and now has more than 23,000.
But times have changed since Obama coasted to victory with the help of then-new social networks. Now that we are eight years into Tumblr, nine years into Twitter and eleven into Facebook, the bar for social media greatness is higher. As Olin points out: “We did all this in the years before brands adopting internet slang was a big thing. They were more innocent times.” Now, it’s not enough to simply be online and throw around a few funny memes, especially if you’re an old, white Republican man whose politics clash with those of a diverse generation. To paraphrase Obama himself, you can put a hashtag on a pig, but…
In the end, the authenticity only goes as far as their Twitter accounts—which, like T. Swift herself, are highly curated despite a blithe exterior. Yes, Boehner’s staff is wielding Swift gifs, but when asked about it further, they offer just a generic statement. Besides, it’s unclear if young people really want their politicians to speak and act exactly like them.
Maybe the trick, when it comes to Political Twitter, is to just be yourself (as long as it doesn’t involve a Carlos Danger scenario). This is a concept that’s heresy to most politicians and their staff, though when it comes to online life, some are better than others. Sen. Cory Booker, who has more than a million Twitter followers, simply tweets as he would speak. Though that means sometimes posting a cringeworthy inspirational quote, he also uses the platform to connect with his base in a more meaningful way.
Booker has invited Hurricane Sandy victims over to his house for a charge:
There is someone at my house now (Eric). I’ve got space u can relax in, charge devices & even a working DVD player. Come by @my_serenelove
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) November 1, 2012
He’s fielded complaints from constituents:
On it. RT @ProducerJon: traffic light at Pennington and McCarter is out.
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) February 11, 2013
He’s even offered updates after he saved a woman from a burning house:
Thanks everyone, my injuries were relatively minor. Thanks to Det. Alex Rodriguez who helped get all of the people out of the house.
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) April 13, 2012
Similarly, Claire McCaskill, who Olin says is one of the only politicians she knows of who runs her own social media. During her 2012 campaign, her digital director didn’t even have the passwords to her accounts.
— Claire McCaskill (@clairecmc) December 19, 2014
Or consider politicians like Sen. Chuck Grassley, whose often incomprehensible tweets are basically the opposite. They read like they’re written by a drunk, malfunctioning robot:
— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) November 3, 2011
Sort filesFOUND survey of CongressSpouses in ’84CBS”FamilyWeekly” MrsGrassley said”If he hadn’t at least tried he would have been unhappy”
— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) December 31, 2014
Fred driving me. He said Tues b4 new yr day he hit deer. Don’t hv to assume anything. He told deer dead I wasn’t w him that nite
— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) January 9, 2015
There’s something endearing, even revolutionary, about a politician embracing being digitally tone deaf. Because at least he’s being real.