A viral video tying the Chevy Volt’s erroneously reported flammability to the Obama administration’s bailout of the auto industry was produced and paid for by a conservative radio host and filmmaker.
The parody video was viewed more than 367,000 times on YouTube as of Monday afternoon. It shows a man driving the plug-in hybrid car and delivering a mock testimonial: “Yeah I’ve heard they’re catching fire in some cases, but I’ve found that the fire really helps me get to my destination faster for fear of my life,” he says.
The actor’s image was lifted from a real Chevy Volt commercial, with new dialogue dubbed in.
The Volt garnered some bad publicity after the cars were involved in a series of fires after test crashes. But the National Highway Safety Traffic Safety Administration said “it does not believe that Volts or similar vehicles pose a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered autos.”
The video ties President Barack Obama’s decision to bail out the U.S. auto industry to the vehicle’s bad publicity. It credits ObamaVolt2012.com as its sponsor. That site in turn links to bailoutcost.com, a website that tracks the cost of the General Motors bailout.
Identities of the creators and funders of the ad are obscured. Both websites are registered to proxies.
Tweets recently surfaced crediting Ben Howe, a conservative radio host and contributor to conservative political websites, for making the video. The video was first posted to YouTube three weeks ago. Last week, Howe posted the ad to Vimeo from his personal account.
When asked Monday if he produced the video, he wrote back in an email, “yes, I made the video and website. Hopefully people found it funny, seems like they did. Didn't realize it was a secret that it was me. Anyone who follows me on twitter has known for weeks.”
Bailoutcost.com turns out to be a project of Less Government, whose president is conservative commentator Seton Motley. While at the bottom of bailoutcost.com, the words “A Less Government Project” appear, they are in nearly black letters against a black background. There is no link back to Seton’s site.
Seton, however, told the Center for Public Integrity that the ad itself and obamavolt2012.com were created and funded entirely by Howe, though bailoutcost.com is indeed a project of his Less Government organization.
“We had nothing to do with the ad. We found it tremendously entertaining — nothing more,” Seton said in an email.
Seton said Howe asked his permission to link to the bailoutcost.com, which encourages readers to take a pledge not to buy GM cars until the bailout money is paid back. While GM recently reported record profits but still owes more than $25 million to the Treasury Department.
Seton’s Less Government has highlighted Howe’s ad with a parody news story about Obama replacing Vice President Joe Biden with the Chevy Volt for his running mate, in turn linking to obamavolt2012.com and bailoutcost.com.
In addition to his talk radio show, Howe co-founded Mister Smith Media, which produces political ads, including “Own It,” an anti-Obama ad for super PAC FreedomWorks for America. He is a contributing author to the late Andrew Breitbart’s Big Journalism and Big Hollywood as well as to the blog Red State.
Chevrolet's production of the car has exceeded demand and GM will idle production for five weeks, the company has reported.
The "fair use" exception to copyright law allows the use copyrighted material for commentary, criticism and parody, says Stanford University’s guide to fair use and copyright. The ad is still available on Vimeo.
In an emailed statement, a General Motors representative for the Volt said they persued the copyright claim because the actor featured in Chevrolet's ad is an actual Volt owner whose permission was not granted for the parody.
John Dunbar contributed to this story. This story has been updated to add comments from General Motors and Howe.