Pop singer Britney Spears would seem to have little to teach candidates for the U.S. presidency. But her lame performance at the MTV Video Music Awards on September 9 — she forgot the words to a lip-synched song — is a cautionary tale about the speed with which news travels in a wired world, whether it concerns pop music or politics, says Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed.

Less than 12 hours after the awards show aired, newscasters were declaring Spears washed up. One critic called her performance a “fiasco”; another called it an “embarrassing flop.” Anyone who had missed MTV’s broadcast could download a clip of Spears’ stumbles on YouTube.

Reports and video clips of political gaffes travel just as fast these days and elicit judgments just as quickly, Reed points out. The current media market is characterized by “information acceleration,” and that changes the way that politicians have to present themselves. “In politics today, the spotlight is never off,” he says. “And because there’s so much on the line, there’s less margin for error.” Spears probably can set her career straight within a few months with an apology and a decent performance elsewhere. A thwarted presidential aspirant has to wait at least four years — if not forever.  

Just ask former U.S. senator George Allen. A seeming shoo-in for re-election in 2006, the Virginia Republican’s campaign crashed after he was caught on video making a racial slur. He twice called an Indian American volunteer for his rival’s campaign a “macaca,” or monkey. Allen, who had been mentioned as a GOP presidential contender in 2008, ended up losing his Senate seat.

Given how quickly embarrassing news spreads, it’s little surprise that some presidential candidates stick closely to their scripts. New York senator Hillary Clinton, on the Democratic side, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, have been criticized for seeming insincere, even robotic, in stump speeches and interviews. Both politicians stay relentlessly “on message.” They rarely deviate from their talking points, which they intone in much the same way, again and again.

From a marketing point of view, hammering away at a clear, consistent message makes sense, Reed notes. “Have you seen any commercials for HeadOn, an ointment for headaches?” he asks. “[They repeat] four times, ‘HeadOn: Apply directly to the forehead.’ They were lambasted for that. People [called it] ‘stupid marketing.’ But it’s so short and right on message that it is misinterpretation-proof, and it really sticks. This is what the politicians are doing.”

A Fateful Dip in the Basin

A terse, memorable message, whether for a product or a policy, matters even more in an accelerated age. People have shorter attention spans and, thanks to the proliferation of new media and technologies, are harder to reach. “It’s the TiVo effect,” Reed notes, referring to the popular digital video recorder. “People can determine when they are going to be marketed to, and they can very easily avoid your message.” Politicians understand that they have to encapsulate their messages in sound bites or risk being ignored. Thus, President Bush calls America’s hard-to-identify terrorist enemies and the states that harbor them “the Axis of Evil.”  

Politicians and their campaign consultants have a greater challenge than many other marketers because they are promoting a person, not a product, and people can make rude jokes, throw tantrums and have love affairs. “It’s not that the rules are different, but it’s harder to be effective because there are so many unknowns,” Reed says. “You create this brand, and it can disappear so quickly for reasons that have nothing to do with the marketing.”

Of course, such flubs aren’t unique to the present day. Former U.S. senator Gary Hart saw his 1988 presidential campaign falter after the press published a photograph of him, aboard a yacht called “Monkey Business,” with a model named Donna Rice sitting in his lap, says Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And former U.S. Congressman Wilbur Mills, a one-time presidential candidate, suffered a career meltdown in 1974 after a police officer pulled his car over near Washington’s Tidal Basin. His passenger, a stripper known as Fanne Foxe, ran from the car and jumped into the water. “Certain pictures and incidents that get magnified in the media can have a huge political effect,” says Guillory. 

A peril related to Foxe’s plunge is politicians’ limited ability to control their supporters’ actions — especially their use of new media like YouTube and blogs. Consider, for example, the “Obama Girl” video posted on YouTube, in which an attractive young woman, wearing a series of clingy outfits, sings about her crush on Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. The Obama campaign has to be vexed by it, Reed says. “It’s a flighty parody, but it’s linked to you. It’s got this sexual element, and millions of people are viewing it. So you wonder, ‘How do we take advantage of this but not take credit for it?'” (If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Obama should embrace the video, if not the singer: Since its posting, fans of other candidates have done spoofs.)

Of course, not all web-based activity by one’s friends is positive. Former senator John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, found himself backpedaling in February after the media exposed anti-Catholic Church comments made by two of his campaign staffers as part of blog postings on abortion. Back then the New York Times predicted, “Many of the other candidates could face similar problems as they try to integrate the passionate, provocative and freewheeling political discourse that flourishes on the Internet into more tightly controlled means of traditional campaigning.”

Trading  Wisecracks on ‘The Daily Show’

The Edwards incident touches on another challenge for people who campaign for the presidency amid the new media maelstrom. They have to try to accentuate their authenticity — the sense that they are likeable, principled people, not just political chameleons lusting for power — while sticking with the safety of their talking points and a closely managed campaign, says Michael Delli Carpini, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication. They may want to associate themselves with fiery activists, like the bloggers whom Edwards recruited, but they don’t want to get stung in the way that he did. 

One way to highlight your authenticity is to appear on entertainment programs that people view as funny and “cool.” Many commentators give Bill Clinton credit for pioneering this approach by playing his sax on the Arsenio Hall Show during the 1992 presidential campaign, Delli Carpini says. In fact, it goes back further than that. Richard Nixon, for example, appeared on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in 1968 when he was running for president.

These days, candidates often cozy up to comedians in their efforts to court young voters and urban sophisticates. Both Obama and senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, have appeared on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” and former senator Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican, even announced his candidacy on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show.”

Appearing on these programs can be well worth it in terms of exposure. According to Comedy Central network figures, “The Daily Show” averaged 1.6 million nightly viewers in 2006. During the 2004 Republican and Democratic conventions, Stewart’s program drew a higher percentage of 18- to 34-year-old viewers during its time slot than cable news leaders including CNN, Fox, CNBC and MSNBC. A well-publicized Annenberg Public Policy Center survey conducted in 2004 added fuel to the fire by demonstrating that viewers of “The Daily Show” and other late-night comedy programs were more likely to be better informed about presidential candidates than those who didn’t tune in.    

Politicians understand that “to register as being up-to-date and in-the-know, they need to be on ‘The Daily Show,'” Delli Carpini says. “What voters are looking for, and what YouTube videos and ‘The Daily Show’ allow, is for you to interact in a way that shows what kind of person you are.”

Certainly, the choice of venue can be telling. “The Daily Show” and its sharp-witted host appeal to younger viewers, and Obama exudes cool and youthful self-confidence. McCain, for his part, seems to genuinely enjoy bantering and trading wisecracks with Stewart (he has appeared on the show 11 times). But Thompson went for a safer setting with Leno. “Jay Leno isn’t known for his hard interviews,” Delli Carpini says. Plus, he tends to attract an older and more conservative audience.

McCain, in some ways, has had the hardest time maintaining his authenticity, while also taking stands that appeal to people who are likely to vote in the Republican primaries. He has long been known for his candor and willingness to occasionally stray from party orthodoxy. He even traded on that reputation during his 2000 presidential run by riding around in a bus called “The Straight Talk Express.” But while his personality has made him popular with pundits, it doesn’t seem to win him many presidential primaries.

“It’s always seemed to me that what people want is the illusion of unscriptedness,” says Dan Kennedy, a visiting professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston. “In 2000, everybody said they liked John McCain’s straight talk and then went out and voted for George Bush.”

In this campaign, McCain had until recently hewed more strictly to Republican orthodoxy, and his campaign had sputtered. In the last several weeks, therefore, he has declared his intention to return to his old ways. To that end, he has rechristened his bus “No Surrender” and, of course, dropped in on “The Daily Show.” He’s also showing a looser style on the campaign trail. In an appearance in New Hampshire, for example, he responded jokingly to a high school student: “Thanks for the question, you little jerk,” when the teen asked McCain whether he was too old to be president. If elected, he will be 71 when he takes office.

Harnessing YouTube

Delli Carpini believes that both Hillary Clinton and Romney suffer because of their perceived lack of authenticity. “They seem too wooden, and that makes people wonder about them,” he says. Even so, he believes that Clinton probably should stick with her current approach, if only because it appears to be working: So far, her fans outnumber her detractors. She began the campaign as the best-known Democrat and has retained a comfortable lead in polls. But Romney, who has been running behind Giuliani, Thompson and McCain in the polls, might try dropping in on “The Daily Show” — or at least loosening up. 

Recently, Clinton went against the grain of her “wooden” image by attempting her own viral marketing campaign aimed at members of the younger voting public who frequent video networking sites like YouTube. In June, Clinton posted a video on her campaign website in which she and former president Clinton spoofed the widely viewed “Sopranos” series finale, including a cameo appearance by one of the show’s leading actors. The video, coupled with a month-long contest that invited the public to choose Clinton’s campaign song, drew more than one million viewers to her site and to YouTube, and it spawned countless blog entries and online discussions about the senator’s newly minted “humorous side.”

Not surprisingly, McCain’s pithy exchange with the high school student was also caught on video and subsequently made its way to YouTube. If you type “McCain” into YouTube’s search engine, that video appears at the top of the list.  

“There’s not a single answer on the right strategy,” Delli Carpini adds. “It’s a combination of looking at what the media environment offers and figuring out your strengths and weaknesses as a candidate. The extent to which the new media provides live, unscripted moments is good for candidates who [thrive] in that setting. Going on MTV worked great for Bill Clinton, but it worked horribly for George H.W. Bush.”