To Cameo or not to Cameo? That’s the question for political campaigns

This is one platform ‘we haven’t seen weaponized yet’

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has spread memes to every corner of social media in his bid for Senate. So why not Cameo too? (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images file photo)
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has spread memes to every corner of social media in his bid for Senate. So why not Cameo too? (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images file photo)
Posted August 3, 2022 at 6:15am

It was just another day on Cameo for Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, but political campaigning may never be the same.

Her message to “Maymet” (as she pronounced it) last month had all the usual Cameo vibes, from the awkward selfie angle to the slapdash delivery.  

“I heard that you moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to look for a new job. And, personally, I don’t know why anyone would want to leave Jersey, because it’s like the best place ever, and we’re all hot messes,” she says in the 47-second video.

It didn’t take long for the internet to figure out the joke. The video was aimed at Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz, and the mastermind behind it was his Democratic opponent, John Fetterman. 

His team commissioned the video on the Cameo platform, where fans can pay celebrities for personalized shoutouts, and then posted it on Twitter and watched it explode.

The video cost about $400 and was a natural “next step,” said a spokesman for Fetterman. In a quest to paint Oz as a carpetbagger, they’ve left no digital stone unturned. So why not use Cameo too?

That’s the question for future campaigns. “We’ve seen candidates throwing these Hail Marys out there on this advertising platform that we haven’t seen weaponized yet,” said Casey Burgat, director of the legislative affairs program at George Washington University. 

The whole point right now is to go viral, he added. “It’s all about eyeballs to see this, to get free media on what you’re paying for in the first place.”

Fetterman is not the first politician to use Cameo — and not even the first to use the platform to call out an opponent’s New Jersey connections. During a failed bid for Montana governor last cycle, Democrat Mike Cooney tried to do something similar by commissioning a video message from former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But most candidates have stayed away.

And that means a lot of unanswered questions. For campaigns looking to weaponize Cameo, how far is too far?

It’s not clear if Polizzi knew she was recording a dig at a politician, or if the “Jersey Shore” star really thought she was sending an innocent shoutout to a local boy at heart.

“Jersey loves you,” she says in the video, before blowing a kiss.

Requests to speak with Polizzi went unreturned from her clothing store The Snooki Shop, wine label Messy Mawma Wine by Snooki, her MAWMA baby gear, and the company producing “Jersey Shore Family Vacation.” 

She didn’t publicly complain or cry foul, though, like Christie did in 2020. After making a video urging a guy named “Greg” to come back to New Jersey, Christie sounded irate. He had been tricked into helping Democrats, he tweeted, and never meant to troll his fellow Republican Greg Gianforte, who went on to win his governor’s race.

But it might not matter either way, said Michael Toner, an attorney who once served on the Federal Election Commission, nominated under President George W. Bush.

While Cameo stresses in its terms of service that videos are not sold but merely licensed to customers — who may use them “solely for their own personal, non-commercial, and non-promotional purposes” — campaign finance rules are another story.

“I don’t see under the law any requirement that a campaign needs to be straightforward with the influencer or needs to disclose how the end product is going to be used,” Toner said.

If a federal campaign pays for an online endorsement or advertisement, it must report that to the FEC. Beyond that, the agency has very little to say about the digital equivalent of the Wild West.

“There’s no way the FEC is keeping up with all of the new platforms. They’re not specifically addressing them,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of OpenSecrets, a group that tracks political spending.

In the past, she’s seen campaigns pull celebrities into their orbit by paying for amorphous consulting work, but a platform like Cameo is more transactional. 

It’s hard to put a dollar figure on a celebrity’s intangible “it” factor. Or as Krumholz put it: “What is the fair market value of an endorsement from Snooki versus Brad Pitt versus Tom Cruise?” 

But Cameo does exactly that, with D-listers selling their time to fans for a listed price — which in some ways makes it more transparent. “It is probably helpful that the celebrity is themselves putting a value on their snippet for the public,” Krumholz said. “It’s not as if there’s one cost for everyone else, but then a different cost for political campaigns.”

A ‘viral button’

It used to be that openly paying for an endorsement might look tacky and desperate — something campaigns would want to avoid.

On Cameo, though, being kitschy is the whole point. And the video Polizzi made isn’t a straightforward plug for one candidate over another. It’s more complicated than that — an earnest-sounding message that Fetterman’s campaign could leverage into a joke.

“What’s really being said here are double entendres,” and humor on social media these days tends to be tongue-in-cheek, said Krumholz. “I doubt very much that any FEC rulemaking is going to get into the weeds to that level, to prohibit any of that kind of creative approach.” 

The calculation for campaigns now is how to hit the “viral button” without coming across as insincere. Effective digital strategies start with authenticity and a willingness to experiment, said Hilary Loewenstein, a senior director at the progressive consulting firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. 

Loewenstein cited a video featuring now-Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren talking about taxing the wealthy during the Democrat’s run in 2011. It captured the mood at the time, took off and was circulated widely, despite the social media audience being a fraction of what it is today. 

“A lot on the internet has evolved since that video. But there’s certainly still room for folks like the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania to meet the moment,” she said.

The 6-foot-9 tattooed Fetterman, who has a shaved head and wears a trademark hoodie, has his own style. He’s walking the line between being relatable and running a savvy meme machine.

“He’s always been a pretty prolific Twitter user,” said Fetterman spokesman Joe Calvello. “So we really channel his brand throughout the channels, whether it’s him posting or a collection of staff posting.”

Fetterman, sidelined from the campaign trail since May after suffering a stroke, stayed in the news as the attention-grabbing tweets kept coming. 

One showed a plane trailing a banner reading “Hey Dr. Oz. Welcome home to NJ!” flying over the Jersey Shore, while another encouraged supporters to sign a petition inducting Oz into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. There were serious posts too, like one decrying high gas prices and calling out oil companies for record profits.

Giving Cameo a try was a natural fit. “We do not write off the digital sphere at all,” said Calvello.

As for Oz, he hasn’t fired back with a Cameo video yet. Asked about his opponent’s social media prowess, Oz spokeswoman Brittany Yanick pointed to the campaign’s own efforts. One tweet pasted Fetterman’s face on a milk carton to emphasize his absence from the trail, while another used a cartoon meme showing two spidermen pointing at each other. The point was to draw a connection between Fetterman and democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

“It’s clear that John Fetterman has time to sit in his basement and post on Twitter, but he can’t find time to publicly meet with voters,” she said in an email. 

The race in Pennsylvania to replace retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, rated Tilt Republican by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, is expected to be one of the most expensive and consequential, as Democrats try to hold a razor-thin majority in the 50-50 Senate.