The video uploaded to Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell's YouTube channel on March 11 is no ordinary campaign ad:
The video lacks the narration or clear message of a television ad. Instead, it features stock footage of McConnell — who's up for re-election this year — going through what seems to be his day-to-day routine, signing papers, shaking hands, and sitting on a couch with his wife.
The video quickly became a meme online. Footage was dropped into the credits of '90s sitcoms Family Matters and Perfect Strangers. There was also a Daily Show callout for viewers to add music over the images of McConnell, launching the hashtag #McConnelling.
But there's a more serious use for this stock footage, or "b-roll": SuperPACs can use the images in ads about candidates.
Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, invites users to download similar videos from his campaign website. The file includes videos like "Franken reading to children," and "Franken walking with college students."
"They're putting it out there because they can, because it's legal, because it's what all their competitors are going to be doing, and it's valuable," says Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics.
She tells NPR's Kelly McEvers that the move can be traced back to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010. That ruling encouraged the growth of political groups like superPACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amount for or against candidates.
There's a catch: Outside groups and candidates often have very close ties, but they cannot legally coordinate with one another on messaging.
So campaigns can put out b-roll on their own sites, but they can't collaborate with superPACs on what the content should be or how it should be used, Krumholz says.
As long as the superPACs make some changes to the source material, "they could, in essence, put up virtually all of the information that the candidates have created," she says.
In fact, 10 days after McConnell's video became available, a group called the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition used the footage in its own advertisement.
Krumholz does not expect the Federal Election Commission to scrutinize the practice.
"They set the rules long ago, and I doubt those are going to change," she says, "despite the fact that political operatives and campaigns are really dealing with a new world order in campaign finance."
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
A couple of weeks ago, something kind of strange happened on Mitch McConnell's YouTube channel. Mitch McConnell is from Kentucky. He's the most powerful Republican in the Senate, and this year, he's up for reelection. So recently, his campaign's YouTube channel released two minutes and 22 seconds of footage of McConnell just doing stuff.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)
MCEVERS: There is music, but no narration, no message, just McConnell sitting with his wife, shaking hands with voters, writing something on his desk. It's called B-roll, and it turns out a lot of Senate campaigns have put out similar footage, both Republicans and Democrats. And they let anyone download it for free.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: They're putting it out there because they can, because it's legal, because it's what all of their competitors are going to be doing, and it's valuable.
MCEVERS: That's Sheila Krumholz. She's the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group. She says this all comes back to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling Citizens United. That ruling helped spur the massive growth of outside political groups like super PACs. Those groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money advocating for or against candidates.
Krumholz says campaigns are putting out this B-roll so well-funded super PACs can use the footage in their own ads. And the only reason campaigns don't just send the super PACs a DVD is because there are rules against direct coordination.
KRUMHOLZ: These groups cannot technically coordinate on the content. They can't agree on what it's going to look like, and they can't simply republish the materials that the candidate is creating. So they have to put their own wrapper on it. They have to do something that changes the material. But as long as they do that, they could, in essence, put up virtually all the information that the candidates have created.
MCEVERS: So they're just saying we just put that video out there and you do whatever you want with it.
KRUMHOLZ: Yeah. And, of course, somewhat with a wink and an eye, because they know very well that it's going to be used. They probably know exactly which organizations are going to use it. So they don't need to coordinate. They don't need to break the law to get what they want and to leverage the overall hundreds of millions of dollars that these organizations are raising in order to get their support or to get them to attack the opposition.
MCEVERS: We looked at Senator Al Franken's website and downloaded a file that it was helpfully called Broll.zip. It had video files like Franken reading to children, you know. So, I mean, the campaigns aren't hiding these videos. They make it very easy to access them.
KRUMHOLZ: You know, the campaigns are being very transparent about it all, and I think that is telling that they don't think they need to play games or hide. It's all, you know, the rules on coordination are so loose, the bar is set so low that they don't need to break the law to get what they want, to get this kind of coordination without technically coordinating. All they have to do is send out a message into the ether or into the public airwaves.
You know, here are the themes we're going to hit, and they put their video on YouTube, and presto, all these other organizations are soon running virtually the same ad.
MCEVERS: I mean, the Federal Elections Commission is supposed to regulate this kind of activity. Are they looking at this? Are they looking at this trying to figure out if there is some coordination going on here?
KRUMHOLZ: I don't think the FEC is doing much in the way of revisiting old rules. They're struggling to even create a response to the 2010 Citizens United ruling. So I would not look to the FEC for much concern or oversight of this. They set the rules long ago, and I doubt those are going to change, despite the fact that political operatives and campaigns are really dealing with a new world order in campaign finance.
MCEVERS: It already seems like candidates and campaigns are pushing it pretty far since Citizens United. I wonder if we can expect them to push it in ways that we don't even know yet.
KRUMHOLZ: Oh, absolutely. There are people who are paid a lot of money to look for the next best loophole, the next end run around the law, around the limits, around the scrutiny in order to have their cake and eat it too, to influence the elections, but fly under the radar.
MCEVERS: Sheila Krumholz is the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. Sheila, thanks so much.
KRUMHOLZ: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.