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ST. LOUIS - Americans got an unprecedented chance, through the wildly popular YouTube Internet site, to go one-on-one with Democratic presidential candidates during a debate Monday night.


In another first earlier this month, a national public watchdog group posted a movie on YouTube to hype a national class action settlement.


Elsewhere, police have taken manhunts online, using Web clips to show surveillance videos of purse snatchers.


It’s not exactly a surprise that such diverse and serious interests would try to harness the Internet to broadcast their messages. But the new vogue way taps into an online forum known more for shots of Twiggy, the water-skiing squirrel, or kids blowing up bottles of soda with a roll of Mentos candy.


YouTube might just be growing up.


Lawyers, preachers, activists, real estate salesmen and even folks with pets to adopt have all posted movies hoping to draw attention to themselves, their issues or their business.


The Paxil video, which popped up earlier this month, features colorful swirls and dramatic music, like something out of a dream. A fake news anchor hypes the Aug. 31 deadline to claim a share of the roughly $48 million from a national class action settled in Madison County, Ill., over the antidepressant Paxil.


That public service announcement was the creation of watchdog group Public Citizen, which noticed the growing body of serious work on YouTube and wanted in.


The group had never done anything like it before, said Brian Wolfman, director of Public Citizen’s litigation arm.


“I was even a little skeptical at first,” Wolfman said. “I didn’t know if we could do a nice job with it. But when I saw it, I thought, `My gosh, this is an untapped resource.’”


YouTube’s success has made it a media darling; the New York Times has mentioned it about 450 times in the last six months, impressive considering the video portal was only born in February of 2005. It was Time magazine’s invention of the year for 2006, the same year it was bought by Internet giant Google for stock equaling $1.65 billion.


“It’s amazing to us sometimes to see the creative ways that people have decided to use us,” said company spokesman Ricardo Reyes, who talks about the Web site’s users as a community. “Absolutely we’re seeing more and more serious posts. That’s a testament to how the community has grown.”


Grown indeed. All the major presidential candidates have their own YouTube “channels” with speeches and ads. Their presence and following on the video portal pushed CNN into the mix. The cable news network featured user video questions during Monday night’s debate.


“The campaigns and the politicians are the best example of what YouTube can do,” said Jonathan Wilcox, a professor with the University of California’s Annenberg School for Communication.


But because YouTube promises basically free and unfettered airtime, it’s not just big-money, national enterprises getting in on the act. St. Louis-area personal injury attorneys Cofman & Townsley have a video featuring kids talking about their dads getting injured. Gospel Power Christian Church has a few clips of its preachers. BARK Rescue in Belleville, Ill., shows animals it has up for adoption.


“I’m an advocate of the idea that you don’t need to go out and spend a lot of money when there’s tools free at your disposal,” said Doug Devitre, with Prudential Alliance Realtors, who posts YouTube videos for his business. “Videos are absolutely the future, and YouTube allows you to do a ton of things.”


Devitre, 29, uses the Web site to help run his video blog; he has posted interviews with developers and project leaders, including Jim Cloar, president of the St. Louis Downtown Partnership, who talks about the city’s renaissance.


“Certainly, in today’s world, people are responding to a whole range of messages and message formats,” Cloar said. “I don’t think you can any longer just count on the daily newspaper or a particular magazine or the radio or TV to get the word out.”


Still, most Web videographers - serious or not - will tell you posting a video and succeeding with one are two different things. Reyes, the YouTube spokesman, laughed when asked how to make a successful Internet movie.


Wilcox said he’d make a lot more money and probably wouldn’t be a teacher if could answer the same question.


That couldn’t be more clear when you consider the Paxil video had been watched 5,089 times by Wednesday night.


A comparison: a spoof music video called Paxilback parodies Justin Timberlake’s song “Sexyback” and has racked up 1,869,054 views. And speaking of Timberlake, his uncensored “Saturday Night Live” skit about a creative Christmas present involving a box is YouTube’s fifth-most viewed movie of all time.


It has more than 24 million hits.

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