The 2016 US presidential election is still more than a year away, but the battle is already heating up on social media – with some unexpected results. Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush and the rest of the 2016 hopefuls are busy duking it out on Twitter and Facebook, as well as newer platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and live-streaming tools Meerkat and Periscope. At stake is a lot more than just likes and views. By many accounts, social media helped Barack Obama tip the balance during the 2012 election. (His campaign spent 10 times as much on social media as did his Republican opponent Mitt Romney’s, earning Obama twice as many Facebook Likes and 20 times as many Retweets).
Political pundits are already predicting that social media may rival traditional ads for influence in this election cycle. The result has been a social media frenzy, with candidates from all backgrounds eagerly jumping in and trying to get their messages out. The quest to stand out from the noise has led to some pretty creative experiments on the part of the 2016 presidential class. Sometimes they get it right. Sometimes they get it wrong. And sometimes the results are just surreal.
For the rest of us out there building our own followings on social media, all of this can actually be very instructive. Here’s a look at five surreal social media moments — so far — in the 2016 election race, with a quick breakdown of what worked, what flopped and what lessons we can take away.
Lindsey Graham demolishes his cell phone on YouTube
The Republican senator from South Carolina may not be leading in the polls, but one of his YouTube videos – which shows Graham methodically crushing, blending and beating his own cell phone – has already racked up more than 2 million views. The video, which makes almost no sense without a bit of context, is actually a response to an incident in which Donald Trump dismissed Graham as an also-ran and then – in classic Trump style – gave out the senator’s personal phone number.
This video was made in conjunction with Internet meme experts IJ Review, and it shows. The blending scene, in fact, is evocative of Blendtec’s “Will it Blend?” viral marketing campaign, which has earned tens of millions of views by blending up household objects like iPhones, golf balls and Coke cans. Noticeably missing from the video, however, is anything about Graham’s political platform. About the only thing that’s clear is that he’s still using a flip phone in 2015.
Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush’s Photoshop war on Twitter
There’s little love lost between the Democratic and Republican hopefuls, and it shows on Twitter. In their most recent spat, Clinton sent out a Tweet illustrating the amount of debt held by US students. Bush then fired off a similar graphic showing that student debt has actually doubled during the Obama administration. Hillary’s team punched back, doctoring up the graphic using an editing tool to read “F: The grade given to Florida for college affordability under Jeb Bush’s leadership.” Not to be outdone, Bush then rejigged Hillary’s “H” campaign logo to read “taxes” with an arrow pointing up.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) August 10, 2015
Twitter loves nothing more than a high-profile cat fight, and both candidates leveraged that to full effect. The exchange showed real-time responsiveness, personality and good use of imagery – all key ingredients for social media success. But the tit-for-tat dragged on too long and ultimately seemed a bit beneath both challengers. At the end of the day, it hardly looks “presidential” when candidates deface each other’s logos like a pair of teenage graffiti taggers.
Ted Cruz impersonates Simpsons characters on YouTube
Republican candidate Ted Cruz has professed his love for television show, The Simpsons, in interviews and even shared clips on his Twitter account. In a video released this summer – seen by nearly 700,000 people – the junior senator from Texas takes his obsession to the next level. Ostensibly “auditioning” for the role of departing voice actor Harry Shearer, Cruz does his best Mr. Burns and Ned Flanders, before moving on to act out a scene between Lisa and Homer, all by himself. Like most trainwrecks, it’s impossible to watch and impossible to turn away.
Piggybacking on pop culture memes is a tried-and-true tactic for building up a social media following. Here, Cruz even collaborates with BuzzFeed, yielding a slickly edited video almost guaranteed to go viral. Despite the impressive view count, however, the effort suffers from a common flaw. It tells us nothing about Cruz or his candidacy. The best meme-jacking social media posts not only attract lots of eyeballs, they also share pertinent information and leave a strong takeaway message.
Marco Rubio brags about going to see Straight Outta Compton
Republican hopeful Rubio has worked to distinguish himself from his presidential rivals by emphasizing his youthfulness. In that spirit, Rubio tweeted last month that he’s “Gotta see #StraightOuttaCompton,” the film that looks at the formation of N.W.A., the ‘80s rap group from Los Angeles. Now, Rubio is a self-described hip-hop fan. What he may have overlooked, however, is that N.W.A. is probably best known for popularizing the violent gangsta-rap genre, penning such classic tracks as F*ck tha Police. Critics were quick to seize on the disconnect between Rubio’s presidential aspirations and musical leanings.
It’s no secret that social media is where the hip kids hang out. Not just politicians, but companies across the board are turning to social networks to reach the coveted millennial demographic. But there’s a right way to do this and a wrong way. Carelessly throwing around pop-culture references to “look cool” can easily come off as false or patronizing … and might even blow up in your face. In Rubio’s defense, however, he probably would make one heck of a Gangsta-in-Chief.
Donald Trump does … well … pretty much anything
The numbers don’t lie. Not only is Trump the far-and-away frontrunner in Republican polls, he’s also dominating social media, leading all candidates with 3 million Likes on Facebook and closing in on Clinton for the Twitter lead with nearly 4 million followers. His social media audience is regularly treated to doses of the absurd, uncouth and inexplicable. In a recent Instagram posting, Trump shared a 15-second video mashup with the tagline “Enough is Enough- No more Bushes!” It featured unflattering clips of former presidents George Bush and George H.W. Bush, plus a few shots of challenger Jeb Bush, all set to circus music.
Much like Trump’s speeches, his social media efforts look amateurish and off-the-cuff, which may be exactly why he’s having so much success. His hacked-together videos and hastily composed Tweets full of exclamation points harken back to earlier days of social media, when everything was more spontaneous and less “corporate.” Immediacy and authenticity were a big part of social media’s original appeal, after all. Even as Twitter, Facebook and other networks mature as marketing platforms, it’s critical not to lose touch with these roots.
The takeaway from all this surreal social media electioneering: Candidates on both sides of the political spectrum know social media can make a difference on election day. But in the quest to translate likes, views and follows to votes quite a few kinks still need to be worked out. Outlandish antics, provocative posts and goofy photos may earn presidential hopefuls plenty of eyeballs. What’s not clear is whether those viewers are taking away any larger messages … or can even vote in the first place. Only 39 percent of Donald Trump’s followers, for instance, are eligible to vote: the majority – not surprisingly – are too young or else outside the US altogether.
Bonus from north of the border
The US doesn’t have a monopoly on surreal social media campaign moments. In British Columbia, Canada, a candidate for a seat in Parliament recently posted what may be the strangest election video ever. Independent candidate Wayne Scott rides a giant Canadian goose, slays a dragon and bumps fists with an alien in a video that looks like it was produced by a couple of film students, and was. In between these exploits, Scott manages to work in a message on lowering higher education costs and protecting indigenous rights. “Humor is a big part of my life,” he explains. It’s a goofy point that’s well worth taking: on social media, a little funny goes a long way.
This post was originally published on Fortune.