Leah Kauffman first got the idea for the 2007 viral video “Crush on Obama” from the tabloids about the then-presidential candidate running topless on the beach. The video has since garnered almost 26.8 million views on YouTube and inspired countless parodies.
Nine years later, Kauffman is using the same combination of humor, pop culture savvy and political activism to promote another buzzy candidate in the current presidential race: Bernie Sanders.
Making a viral video is “like a gamble,” Kauffman said.
Content monitoring tools like NewsWhip’s Spike can help creators get a sense of what is currently popular, but it’s more challenging to predict the future. Having the intuition to recognize whether an idea has potential plays a major role in the process, Kauffman said.
“[It’s] taking something that’s in the public conversation and honing in on what that funny thing is and moving on from there,” she said. “Figuring out what’s trending is different from figuring out what’s going to be trending because you have to have a hunch.”
2016 is considerably different from 2007, Kauffman said. For starters, YouTube wasn’t a mainstream form of content-sharing like it is today. Competition is also fiercer and the scope much broader, she added.
“Going viral,” however, is the exception, not the norm.
“The hard part is tempering your expectations and thinking big,” Kauffman said. “You keep doing [videos] in a hope that you’ll reach a broader audience.”
Kauffman sings and records all the songs herself, as well as making appearances in the videos. She wrote the lyrics and melody, while Jeffrey Fry wrote the music and produced the track.
“It’s challenging because I’m not a super sexy model, I’m just a civilian,” she said. “You’re under this lens of scrutiny from complete and utter strangers.”
Her M.O. for dealing with haters? Ignore it.
“My nose is big,” she said, shrugging. “So what? What’s next?”
Videos are a passion project for Kauffman, who works as the director of content strategy for 50onRed, a local adtech company.
The Sanders music video was inspired by her “yearning to be a part of this grassroots movement.” Kauffman said she hopes the result is powerful, funny, and informative.
She recorded the song for the music video during Winter Storm Jonas, drawing inspiration from Justin Bieber and Major Lazer’s high-energy, danceable music, as she often emulates the popular videos that are becoming iconic.
She then wrote a message on Facebook asking for dancers. About 70 people responded. Print Liberation made white T-shirts with “Bernie bae!” in black block lettering and artist Brooks Bell made an eight-foot backdrop for the music video in a colorful grid of phrases like “feel the Bern” and “eat the rich.”
Kauffman said Sanders’ “fearlessness” inspires her.
“His policy seems to resonate with a lot of young people,” she said. “There’s this pervasive sense of hopelessness about politics. … To see so many young people behind him is powerful.”
The video was filmed at two locations on Saturday in sub-zero temperatures. The shoot started at the Bernie Sanders mural outside of SweetTooth on 4th on Bainbridge and concluded at The Glass Factory in Brewerytown.
Dalyla Baker, one of the voguers in the video, is no stranger to performing in music videos — she has participated in five — but she is new to political involvement.
“For me this is a new experience because I’m learning so much, like why Bernie Sanders is such a good candidate,” she said. “I don’t follow a lot of politics [and] I’m not following the race, but right now I’m Team Bernie!”
Cesar Mantilla, a Temple University social work major and another dancer in the video, said he had no prior dance experience.
“Blending fun with political involvement was super appealing to me,” he said. “I like most of [Sanders’] positions and I keep getting stuck on this idea that maybe he’s not the pragmatic candidate, but for me it just sort of begs the question, pragmatic according to whom?”