The 2015 Israeli election video wars

Click photo to download. Caption: The “Bibi-sitter” video ad featuring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the March 17 Israeli election. Credit: YouTube screenshot via Benjamin Netanyahu.

 

By Orit Arfa/JNS.org

Forget pollsters. These days, to get a sense of an Israeli politician’s popularity among the electorate, the place to go is his or her Facebook and YouTube video portals. 

Granted, the number of views for a candidate’s video may be slightly less reliable than the latest polling data. But more and more politicians and political parties are realizing that to promote their respective brands ahead of Israel’s March 17 election, they must utilize a new political weapon: the “viral video.”

If a video’s views are the chosen metric, then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party are leading the polls with the highly popular “Bibi-sitter” ad, which has been featured in the New York Times and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The ad has Netanyahu posing as the only competent “babysitter” to watch over an Israeli couple’s children and property. Exact numbers are difficult to gauge, given that videos are uploaded and re-uploaded on both YouTube and now Facebook, under various accounts and subtitles. But the “Bibi-sitter” video has far exceeded 1 million total views.

“I think you see a huge jump in resources being invested in the development of online videos in this election versus the last election,” said Avi Abelow, CEO of 12Tribe Films, an organization specializing in pro-Israel video and social media marketing, in addition to running the israelvideonetwork.com video portal. 

Click photo to download. Caption: The Zionist Union alliance's animated video about its socialist economic platform. Credit: YouTube screenshot via Zionist Union.

The Meretz faction has come out with a cheerful music video that has its members, quite literally, partying. Shas came out with a serious “Shkufim (Invisible)” video highlighting the plight of Israel’s “invisible” lowest classes. The Zionist Union—an alliance between Labor head Isaac “Buji” Herzog and Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni—has tried its hand at an animated video about its socialist economic platform, supplementing the dry, broadcast-style soundbites of its other campaign ads.

Likud and Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) have emerged as the fiercest fighters in the video war over seats in the 20th Knesset. At times, Netanyahu and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett seem to be competing more for an Academy Award than for the premiership of Israel, with scriptwriters and actors becoming as crucial to their message and image as political strategists. 

A pioneer in the field, Bennett had already used creative videos for advocacy when he served as head of the Yesha Council, which represents Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. Bennett launched his recent election campaign with a vignette that casts him in the role of a Tel Aviv hippie apologizing for merely walking down the street, the first video of his “Stop Apologizing” series that opposes perceived left-wing appeasement. 

Click photo to download. Caption: The vignette casting Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett in the role of a Tel Aviv hippie apologizing for merely walking down the street, the first video of his “Stop Apologizing” series that opposes perceived left-wing appeasement. Credit: YouTube screenshot via Naftali Bennett.

But video views don’t always translate into votes. As Bennett’s videos received buzz, his party lost several mandates, according to the polls. Jewish Home’s more religiously observant candidates expressed disappointment in Bennett’s appointment of a secular soccer player to the party’s list of Knesset candidates.

“You can have a fabulous online video strategy that is succeeding, bringing in more potential voters—and the campaign offline can go wrong, for whatever reason, and erase the gains of the video campaign,” 12Tribe Films’s Abelow told JNS.org.

Shlomo Blass—CEO of Rogatka, an Israeli media-production company specializing in content-driven online campaigns (among its credits is the viral “We Con the World”  music parody)—believes Likud’s video campaign has been the most successful one so far on the branding front.

“[Netanyahu] is perceived as someone detached, almost not human, living in his bubble, and here you see him as very personable,” Blass told JNS.org.

Bennett’s campaign needed to have a much different effect, according to Blass.

“Even though [Bennett’s] clips were pleasant and fun, he came across as a ‘dude,’” Blass said. “You want him to be your best friend, but I think when it comes to how you see him as Minister of Defense, branding-wise, it wasn’t productive.”

While there is no exact formula for a viral video, Blass identifies three major elements: humor, relevance to current trends, and dissemination. Abelow identifies two additional elements that create that “share factor.”

“One, it’s unexpected,” Abelow said. “It’s something different. It catches you off-guard. The second component is entertainment value.”

The videos have had little effect on undecided Israeli voter Liami Lawrence. A public relations consultant and aspiring stand-up comedian who recently made aliyah from Los Angeles, Lawrence is leaning towards voting for the new centrist party, Kulanu, which thus far has not produced any notable videos. Lawrence called the “Bibi-sitter” video “brilliant,” but is no closer to voting for Likud because of it. At the same time, the video deterred Lawrence from supporting Netanyahu’s most formidable opponents.

“I think [‘Bibi-sitter’] was the most amazing political commercial I’ve ever seen,” Lawrence said. “Me personally, I hesitate to vote for Herzog or Livni because I’m afraid of them, and this commercial brought it home.”

On the other hand, Bracha Benaim, an Israeli American who recently returned to Israel from New York, was “mortified” by Netanyahu’s ad. 

“I was hoping it was fake,” she said. “What does ‘Bibi-sitter’ have to do with anything? How does that promote Bibi in any way?” 

Benaim, however, is still voting for Netanyahu. “Who else am I going to vote for?” she said.

The video strategy, meanwhile, has advantages other than attracting voters. 

“New media is a conversation with your audience,” said Blass, adding that online media enables candidates to target specific audiences and measure their level of engagement. 

Online media campaigning is far less regulated than traditional print, radio, and television advertising, although Likud was required to remove its “Knesset kindergarten” ad featuring children acting as Knesset leaders. The use of children is forbidden in political campaigns.

Speaking to members of the foreign press as part of a Knesset tour held ahead of the elections, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein referred to the emerging online video campaign industry as a “balagan,” Hebrew slang for “mess.”

“It’s totally open space as far as new media is concerned,” Edelstein said, acknowledging that what may be forbidden on radio is unrestricted on social media. “[It’s] very difficult to do anything about it because the moment we start legislating too much about Internet, I guess we’ll lose Internet.”

That means Israeli voters can continue to take out their popcorn, just like the “Bibi-sitter” at the end of his ad, and enjoy the video-slinging until March 17.

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Posted on February 19, 2015 and filed under Features, Israel.