YouTube a platform for debate

Times Staff Writer

Grant Johnson, a 49-year-old traffic engineer who lives in the Sierra foothill town of Coarsegold, passionately supports Proposition 8, which would amend the state Constitution to ban gay marriage.

In past elections, Johnson might have written a letter to the editor about his views. This year, he had a better idea. He made a video and put it up on YouTube.

The spot Johnson made, “Garriage,” is one of dozens of homemade advertisements for and against Proposition 8 that are dueling it out in cyberspace. It begins with images of gay weddings and then moves on to dramatic photos of lightning striking San Francisco and fires burning around California, leaving the viewer to infer that the state is being punished for allowing same-sex marriage.

Johnson included the photos, he said, because he thought it was “interesting . . . an elephant in the room” that so many fires erupted in California the same week the state Supreme Court issued its ruling to legalize gay marriage.


Another homemade commercial features a self-described Jewish Mother, Molly Pier, talking about her late son, a gay doctor whose partner she still considers family. She urges voters to oppose Proposition 8.

Amateur campaign videos are “one of the really remarkable things YouTube has brought to our politics,” said Jonah Seiger, managing partner of Connections Media, a Washington, D.C.-based agency that helps campaigns navigate the world of the Web. And in many campaigns this year -- especially the presidential race -- videos made by people outside the campaigns have gone “viral,” racking up millions of hits and catching the campaign professionals off guard.

The phenomenon poses both positives and negatives for campaigns. The videos may reach voters who aren’t seeing traditional commercials, but the campaigns can’t control the messages being delivered.

Proponents of Proposition 8, for example, said they would never make a commercial suggesting that God has punished the state for allowing gay marriage, as Johnson’s does.


“That video . . . was not produced by the campaign or affiliated with the campaign,” said Jennifer Kerns, who until this week served as spokeswoman for the Yes-on-8 campaign.

Steve Marshall, 20, made his pro-Proposition 8 video, “Four Men In Black,” as a college project. “I go to a Catholic film school in San Diego,” he said in explaining why he focused his film on the “activist judges” who legalized same-sex marriage in California in spring. “It’s an issue we really feel passionate about, and we had the resources available to take some action.”

Other students at John Paul the Great Catholic University also made videos in support of the proposition. One of them, “Marriage Rights,” features a man haplessly trying to fit two electrical plugs together instead of into a socket. Finally, he looks into the camera and declares, “It doesn’t work.” Then a signs says: “Keep marriage real.”

Kevin Briancesco, a 26-year-old graduate student in theater arts at Arizona State University, posted a manic anti-Proposition 8 video, “Vote No You Idiot,” that included a satirical segue into the “mind of a gay man.”


“I have a lot of friends and family that are homosexual,” Briancesco said. He said he made three videos -- shot in his bedroom using the camera on his computer -- because he wanted to support gay friends and lobby other friends and family to vote against the measure.

Because so much of the campaign rhetoric around the issue is so serious, he said, he “wanted to do something a little more mocking.”

The sarcasm in his video is evident: “I don’t know about you,” Briancesco says, “but I’m totally OK with having a tiered system of rights for people based on things they can’t change about themselves. I mean, if U.S. history shows us anything, it worked out fantastic in regards to race, sex and ethnicity.”

Though Briancesco’s video has yet to break 3,000 viewers, he said he was pleasantly surprised when his cousin told him she would change her vote after watching his video.


Steve Smith, campaign manager for No on 8, said the phenomenon was too new for anyone to fully understand what effect it will have at the polls. But Smith said, “My strong suspicion is this is an activity engaged in by both sides for . . . the bases. It’s the supporters talking to the supporters.”

Still, the campaign has hired a consultant to help manage online campaigning, among other things..

Many of the videos feature humor that is far racier than anyone affiliated with a traditional campaign could get away with.

In one ad, made by a comedy group in Boston, a man and a woman face the camera and, stone-faced, declare that they understand why people are upset about gay people getting married.


“It’s the sex, isn’t it?” the man asks.

The woman agrees, then suggests that the solution might be to let gays marry.

The man looks at the camera: “They’ll be lucky if they’re having sex once a month.”