Between Two Ferns fallout: PR coup or boo boo for Obama?

You couldn’t find a more prominent global figure to place between two potted plants. On Tuesday, the internet went crazy over President Barack Obama’s appearance on Zach Galifianakis’ online parody talk show, Between Two Ferns, which typically hosts celebrity guests like Sean Penn, Will Ferrell and Charlize Theron. Opinions on whether Obama’s appearance on the […]

You couldn’t find a more prominent global figure to place between two potted plants.

On Tuesday, the internet went crazy over President Barack Obama’s appearance on Zach Galifianakis’ online parody talk show, Between Two Ferns, which typically hosts celebrity guests like Sean Penn, Will Ferrell and Charlize Theron.

Opinions on whether Obama’s appearance on the show – famous for its awkward silences, Galifianakis’ random and often insulting questions, and his deadpan humour – are all over the map. Some say it was brilliant publicity and a smart channel to choose educate younger people about Healthcare.gov and the Affordable Care Act. Others feel it was a tragic fit for Brand Barack.

The White House is thrilled with the results of the president doing the show. Taking to Twitter at midday on Tuesday, White House senior communications adviser Tara McGuinness reported that Funny or Die, the comedy website that posts episodes of Between Two Ferns, was the number one source of referrals to Healthcare.gov at that point.

Then on Wednesday, Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to the president, appeared on CBS This Morning (no ferns in sight) and shared some impressive web traffic numbers. She stated that in less than 24 hours of the show being posted, there were nearly one million hits to Healthcare.gov from Funny or Die’s website. She also noted that the traffic on Healthcare.gov leapt 40% between Tuesday and Wednesday.

“The goal was to reach that young audience and Zack and the guys at Funny or Die, they have huge followings,” she said. “Every young person I know watches their videos… and so how do we reach them in a way that was amusing and entertaining but yet informative, and the fact that the website traffic has gone up is really an indication that it’s working.”

Here’s the chatter on the presidential installment of Between Two Ferns.

David Weigel @ Slate
Weigel got the goods on locking down the interview and filming the video with Obama (which was a surprisingly smooth process) from Between Two Ferns co-creator and director Scott Aukerman. According to Aukerman, his crew expected Obama’s team to somehow want to shape the show, but they didn’t. “It was very strange. Zach and I kept looking at each other to say, ‘They’re eventually going to try to control us.’” But Obama’s camp put a lot of trust in the Funny or Die team. “[The White House is] so blown away by the video that I think it worked out for them. It proves that when you let creative people do their thing, you’ll get something good out of it,” said Aukerman.

When asked how scripted the president’s part of the show was, Aukerman said a lot of it was actually improv on Obama’s part. “He surprised us. The back and forth between Zach and the president, where they’re kind of verbally assaulting each other—that went very well.”

He noted that no president has ever done a viral video like this before. “I think this was a genius move from the president… Other presidents had done Letterman, SNL, but this is the first sitting president to do a viral video, and people on the left and right are talking about it.”

Michael Shear @ The New York Times
Shear wrote that Obama’s appearance on the show is the “latest public relations gamble” he and his aides have taken in their attempt to get their message out to the “connected-but-distracted generation” in new ways.

In the article, Obama’s senior adviser and chief communications strategist, Dan Pfeiffer, commented that “We have to find ways to break through. This is essentially an extension of the code we have been trying to crack for seven years now.”

“Although Mr. Obama has hardly abandoned traditional set pieces like interviews with network anchors, he has been more willing than his predecessors to ditch the oh-so-serious playbook that dominated White House communications strategy for decades,” wrote Shear.

While Mike McCurry, a press secretary to Bill Clinton in the ’90s, commented in the article that pop culture has changed and the way the public is now being entertained and informed “almost mandate new strategies,” he did have concerns about Obama’s appearance. “We have to worry about the dignity of the presidency. There’s a limit to how much you can do.”

In the same article, former White House communications director for George W. Bush, Nicolle Wallace, gave credit to Obama’s team for letting Obama reveal more than simply his official side. “It’s almost negligent to not allow a president to let that side show through,” she said. “There’s nothing we see in the political media that depicts anyone as a well-rounded human being. All of these endeavors are noble and worthwhile.”

David Graham @ The Atlantic
Graham points out the disdain some expressed about Obama appearing on a parody show when there are more serious issues at hand (chaos in Ukraine and Syria, for starters). “Claims like this are more complex than they initially appear,” wrote Graham. “On the one hand, Obama has often privileged popular media—late-night TV, comedians, etc.—over the working press. For the White House, that’s strategically sound: The traditional media’s whingeing about it won’t win much sympathy, and Jimmy Fallon isn’t going to ask questions as aggressive as, say, Jake Tapper or Charlie Savage.”

Addressing Obama’s affection for non-traditional media, he wrote that “part of the president’s job is to communicate, and that’s what he’s doing here: trying to reach a specific audience. It happens that the law in question, the Affordable Care Act, is politically contentious, which accounts for the backlash; but it also happens that it’s the law of the land, and educating citizens about it can hardly be a dereliction of duty.”

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