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America's First Multiplatform Gaffe

Erich Fehrnstrom's fatally candid comparison of his boss Mitt Romney's planned general-election campaign to a shaked Etch-A-Sketch may be the political world's first multi-platform gaffe. What makes it new and different is its extreme ripeness for visual exploitation at the virtual dawn of a new era of social networking on proliferating varieties of gadget. In times past, when a candidate or one of his top aides committed a gaffe, his or her betise entered an echo chamber, to be sure, but that chamber was confined to traditional media--television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. These media usually confined their repetition to words, which are their specialty. Visual gaffes occurred now and then, but the general sobriety of traditional news media dictated that they be captured in traditional news photos such as the famously unconvincing shot of Richard Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, trying to demonstrate how she might have accidentally erased 18 and a half minutes from a key Watergate tape. Thus when Jimmy Carter claimed to have been attacked by a rabbit, or when George W. Bush almost choked to death on a pretzel, opportunities for visual mockery were limited by the absence of good news footage to a few political cartoons.

It's different now. Political coverage by Comedy Central and the Onion is arguably more influential than many straight-news outlets on television and in newsprint, and we can expect some pretty hilarious exploitation of the visual possibilities of Fehrnstrom's simile. But the main reason this will be the gaffe heard 'round the world is the Web. Fehrnstrom's Etch-A-Sketch crack will inspire parody images, Web widgets, and apps downloaded onto computer screens, tablet computers, iPhones, and of course Etch-A-Sketches. These images can effortlessly be e-mailed, Facebooked, and tweeted hither and yon. Competitive impulses will be stirred among rival campaigns, amateur and professional Web designers, and legions of wiseacres with too much time on their hands. Already we have this and this and this and this. There will be much, much more, and to Romney it will feel like it's coming in the windows, down the chimney, and up the bathtub drain.