It’s been a busy week. Russia invaded Georgia, the Olympic Games opened with unrivalled pomp in imperial Beijing and the reigning queen of bad-taste, Paris Hilton, announced her candidacy for the Presidency of the United States to an online audience of six and a half million viewers.
Of these three global events, it’s the Paris Hilton video on FunnyOrDie, “Paris Hilton Responds to McCain Ad”, that has created the most online buzz -- amassing a remarkable six and half million views in just six days. Indeed, this video is holding its own against the Chinese Olympics in the online competition for global eyeballs. Whatever the world’s athletes accomplish over the next couple of weeks in Beijing’s National Stadium, Paris Hilton has already won the gold medal for digital narcissism -- scaling Olympian heights in her shameless self-promotion.
So what lies behind this video? The Republican candidate, John McCain, released a controversial and, some Democrats say, racist television advertisement which visually associated the blonde Hilton with the supposed “celebrity” Barack Obama. And so Paris Hilton struck back with a satirical video remix of the original McCain advertisement. Appearing in a one-piece leopard skin swimsuit and announcing her own mock candidacy for president, Hilton satirized McCain as “super old” “wrinkledly white guy” who has been around since “dancing was a sin” and “beer was served in a bucket.”
Hilton presented herself as a classic third party candidate – neither "old" like McCain or "for change" like Obama. “I’m just hot,” she announced, before explaining that “I’m like totally ready to lead” and then, blowing a suggestive kiss at the camera, promising she’d see us all later this year at the White House.
Six and half million views later, the online debate about American politics has switched from Republicans and Democrats to the Paris Hilton party. Barack Obama and John McCain might be busy picking their vice-presidential candidates, but last week Hilton made both Obama and McCain appear distinctly vice-presidential. Indeed, if the election was held this week and Hilton was on the ballot, my guess is that the 27-year old heiress of the Hilton hotel dynasty would win more votes amongst her peers than the “wrinkedly white dude”.
So what does the viral success of the Hilton video tell us about the way in which the Internet is changing American politics? On the one hand, it shows the remarkable ability of the Internet to reshape the political debate. The Hilton video successfully satirized the original McCain commercial, thereby potentially changing the whole chemistry of the race. The San Francisco Chronicle described this as the “Paris Hilton factor” and argued that had John Kerry’s responded so aggressively to George W. Bush’s “Swift Boat” attack advertisements, he might have even won the 2004 election.
Only, of course, Paris Hilton wasn’t working in concert with the Democrats. Her video was for Paris on the Hilton channel, not for Barack on the Obama channel. In this one minute and fifty second spoof video, Hilton successfully reheated her own celebrity brand. The one-time amateur porn actress really is hot now -- certainly hotter than the ever-so-slightly tepid Obama, who could certainly borrow a bit of her sizzle between now and November.
And that’s the scary thing about the Internet’s radically democratizing impact on politics. In today’s unmediated online world – Paris Hilton, Britney Spears or any other under-dressed online celebrity -- can impose their brands and ideologies into politics. The traditional media gatekeepers aren’t running the political show anymore. The Internet free-for-all is transforming politics into show-business, citizens into short-form video consumers, politicians into celebrities and celebrities into politicians.
How long will it be, I wonder, before a half-naked Paris Hilton really does announce her Presidential candidacy via an Internet video? That's the real Paris Hilton factor. That's when the video on FunnyOrDie will no longer seem very amusing.