why is barack obama’s website so lame?

A couple of weeks ago, Terry Gross’s Fresh Air ran a fascinating but very dense episode comparing the two presidential candidates’ plans for health care reform. I let iTunes delete the episode, but later decided I wanted to listen to it again. Unfortunately, it had already fallen off of the Fresh Air page on the iTunes Store, and rather than fiddling around with NPR.org, I thought I’d just go to the candidates’ websites to refresh my memory on their respective plans.

I’m going to have to do a lot more reading before I’ll be able to claim to really understand the candidates’ plans, but here’s an interesting thing: McCain’s website is better.

This surprised me, because like a lot of naturally left-leaning people, I’d pretty much accepted without question the idea that the Obama campaign was the youthful, hip, internet-savvy campaign, the campaign with its finger on the pulse of under-30 America’s Twitter-pated heart. McCain, on the other hand, was supposed to be to old codger still banging out angry letters to the editor on his fifty-pound Smith-Corona (and hoarding enough ribbons to last him until the sad day when Sarah Palin is sworn in as Pitbull-in-Chief).

But in fact, McCain’s website is in a dozen subtle ways better, more informative, more substantive, and less cluttered with ephemera than Obama’s.

Start with their splash pages. Type “www.barackobama.com” into your browser, and you are immediately redirected to “donate.barackobama.com” and an ad trying to get you to buy a car magnet. — What? There’s a big red button to take you on to the donation page, and only a much less noticeable, pale blue button to go to the website.

John McCain’s site, on the other hand, starts predictably with an ad highlighting the Senator’s military service. But it also offers four options, more-or-less equally weighted, to help narrow down visitors into groups that can be more effectively served/targeted. If you know you want to be a McCainy, there’s “JOIN THE TEAM,” a signup box that doesn’t (at least initially) ask you to buy anything. If you’re an undecided, a supporter looking for talking points, or a detractor skimming for things to make fun of, you can click on “WHY VOTE MCCAIN?” If you’re a practical-minded oil tycoon, you can skip all the policy points and click on “INVEST IN VICTORY” to donate precious bodily fluids, or maybe cash. (I didn’t click to find out.) But — here’s something it’s hard to poke fun at — the fourth button is called “A CAUSE GREATER,” and it leads to a page full of useful links to volunteer organizations having nothing whatever to do with John McCain.

Now one can call this political opportunism — there is, for example, a feature on the page allowing you to “submit” a record of your volunteer work. What this is for I’m not sure — perhaps it’s another way for the McCain campaign to compile mailing lists. But it’s hardly necessary to give them information just to use the page, which links to a number of worthwhile organizations, including food banks, the Red Cross, Teach For America and Americorps, and President Carter’s favorite place to hang out in overalls and swing a righteous Christian hammer, Habitat For Humanity.

This one page is a pretty brilliant stroke from a campaign that we keep misunderestimating. First, it demonstrates, in a practical way, the possibilities of Senator McCain’s theme of service to country. Second, it goes a long way toward neutralizing Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin’s convention snarkery about “community organizers” — probably the most egregiously tone-deaf theme of the whole Republican event. Third, it’s actually useful, and a whole lot less self-serving than the Obama site’s “ObamaStore” section, with its bold “BUY,BUY,BUY” buttons. (There’s a store on the McCain site, too, but it’s not a part of the home page.)

Suppose you’ve clicked through the splash page to Senator Obama’s actual homepage. Far too much about the page is at once half-heartedly hip, practically ineffective, awkward to use, and seemingly all about fundraising. Once again, the “DONATE” button, bold and red, is the most visible thing on the page. The least visible thing is the button taking you back to the home page, because unlike the McCain site’s simple “HOME” button, the Obama site uses a little blurry star-shaped thing that could maybe be a house. (Wait a minute… maybe I’m the old codger….) While McCain’s site makes getting involved in the campaign easy (several options, all neatly tucked into one small box), Obama’s site is overflowing with different boxes leading down different internet rabbit holes, including one called, astonishingly, “MyBO.” It’s bad enough to remind the public that your candidate’s initials are “B.O.” — do you really want to force your supporters to admit to their own?

Both sites have two videos available, one positive and one negative. But while McCain’s are direct, punchy, single-issue ads having to do with character (John McCain is a brave guy who serves his country, Barack Obama and Joe Biden are disrespectful to women), Obama’s are yawn-inducing (Obama as a talking head advocating things everybody wants anyway, like fixing healthcare and a president who brings people together) or simply bashing the opponent for something meaningless (that John McCain sure is old!).

On the actual policy pages, too, the McCain site does me the simple courtesy of not wasting my time. Ideas are laid out clearly, if not in great detail, then at least in bullet points. And here the Obama site does quite well, too, laying out Senator Obama’s plan with grace and a surprising amount of specificity. But again, starting the page with a quote from an Obama speech brings the candidate’s persona to the fore, while Senator McCain’s site effectively removes him from the message, emphasizing both his own service and opportunities for others to serve.

Also, two minor points of lexical order: McCain’s site sensibly treats “health care” as two words, while the Obama site collapses them into one fugly neologism, and (most gruesomely) Obama’s health care page offers a link to “the Frequently-Asked Q and A.” Are there any three letters on a website less in need of explanation than “FAQ”? And if you’re going to spell the phrase out, why muddy it up by mixing it with “Q and A”?

This is a hair’s-breadth race for arguably the most important four years in the past half-century. Both teams need to be at their absolute best, right now, putting their ideas out with absolute clarity and not giving any ground to the “nattering nabobs of negativism.” So far, only one team really is.

(Here, by the way, is the Fresh Air episode, and it’s well worth a listen.)

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