The Absence of the ‘SNL Effect’ in the 2012 Election

This above sketch and a series of similar pieces have become some of the most highly acclaimed political skits in Saturday Night Live’s (SNL) history, which spans three decades. The Sarah Palin skits have come to represent a definitive moment in pop culture, serving as an artifact that captures a pivotal moment in the 2008 presidential elections. These comedic skits illustrate a time when the Republican Party inserted Sarah Palin as the vice presidential candidate to much positive and negative fanfare, which lead to many events that sparked a media spectacle.

SNL’s influence on the 2012 elections has been relatively minor in comparison to the 2008 election season. The sketches from this election season are not matching the viral success of the Palin material from 2008, with hits on Youtube approaching upwards of 20 million versus the hundreds of millions views commanded by Palin. This elections season’s SNL products are simply not achieving the same channel presence either.

SNL’s Palin skits received extensive coverage on the 24-hour news cycle, late night talk show circuit and in major news publications. There has even been some chatter amongst journalists, academics and political strategists who questioned if the skits had a direct influence on voter decision-making. Political scientists John Baugmarter, Jonathan Morris and Natasha Walth hypothesized that “viewing the SNL skit [would] be negatively associated with views of Sarah Palin and with the likelihood of voting for John McCain” during the 2008 election in a study featured in Public Opinion Quarterly. Though their study did not support their hypothesis on a possible “Tina Fey Effect”on voter decision-making in 2008 (Fey famously portrayed Palin in the skits), it did provide support for the idea that political comedy and negative caricatures can hurt a campaign as the images associated with the satire become accepted as truth in public opinion.

SNL’s receding influence on the 2012 election may be attributed to multiple factors, like a loss of market share to new political comedy forms in the digital space like memes. The most notable, though, may be the absence of individuals or candidates whose personae lend them to be easily recreated as caricatures in political satire. Essentially, when candidates with “big personalities” are in the mix, political satire like SNL’s Palin skits have greater potential for impact given their heightened presence in the media. The Obama and Romney campaigns did not experience the same media scrutiny for their vice-presidential picks that the McCain campaign garnered after bringing Palin on the ticket—along with various gaffes in the media like the Katie Couric interview and numerable “misquotes” while on the campaign trail.

Both the Obama and Romney campaigns have remained fairly “gaffe-free.” Obama and Romney’s personalities are fairly straightforward and cut dry. Obama has been framed as the “intellectual” and the “professor” in media, and Romney has established himself as the “businessman.” These media frames, in comparison to Palin’s frames like the “soccer mom,” just don’t offer up as much fodder for powerful caricature creation on satirical shows.

This election season’s candidates don’t bring the “spectacle” in media spectacle. Therefore, political satire like the skits produced by Saturday Night Live are left with less to build on. With the talent of writers, producers and comedians in the production studios of NBC, we are never too far from the possibility of a viral hit poking fun at our dearly beloved politicians. We just need caricature-ready candidates, which seem to be missing from the 2012 election.

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Deron Hogans is a graduate student in the Communication, Culture and Technology program at Georgetown University, studying the relationship between media and politics. He is also a strategic communications professional with interests in culture and brand management. Connect with him via Twitter, @DeronHogansJr.