SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korean presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol got a boost on Thursday (March 3) when a rival dropped out, but if the conservative former prosecutor wins next week, it may also be thanks to deepfake avatars and viral short videos.
Opposition leader Yoon and the top liberal contender have gone to unusual lengths in the nation's tradition-bound politics to shed the image of grumpy old men, courting young voters who could prove decisive in what has been a close race.
The candidates are vying to replace liberal President Moon Jae-in, who came to power five years ago with help from voters in their 20s and 30s. They have since deserted his party in droves.
Mr Yoon, 61, who has been narrowly ahead of Mr Lee Jae-myung, 57, from Mr Moon's governing party, won the backing on Thursday of a fellow conservative running a distant third, who joined with Mr Yoon in a combined ticket.
Mr Moon is barred by terms limits from seeking reelection.
A former top prosecutor, Mr Yoon has enjoyed steadfast support from people over 60, while Mr Lee leads with those in their 40s and 50s, leaving a battleground for younger voters.
Their support has swung dramatically toward some conservative challengers, but disapproval ratings are high for both top contenders amid scandal and mud-slinging.
Mr Yoon and Mr Lee both established campaign task forces aimed at capturing or winning back young voters.
A digital avatar of Mr Yoon, his campaign says, is the world's first "deepfake candidate", explaining policy ideas and taking digs at his rival.
Mr Lee's team responded with its own AI-powered character.
Mr Yoon's slogan "OK, Let's go!" - shouted at rallies with his signature uppercut gesture - has gone went viral on social media, creating endless memes and video spoofs.
Mr Kim Dong-wook, a 30-year-old adviser on Mr Yoon's social media campaign, is trying to shake the candidate's image as "ggondae"- a bossy old person stubbornly insisting on his opinion.
"I've found him to be more open to change," said Mr Kim, a former think tank researcher.
"He was portrayed as passive and at times lacking confidence in the media, so I wanted to help change that and add young voices to his policies."
Mr Yoon's youth team, selected by public audition, comprises people aged 23 to 38, including a start-up founder, a former professional gamer, a psychiatrist and a home shopping executive.
The team got off to a rocky start with clashes and resignations.
When Mr Yoon finally met with the team, Mr Kim says he pointed out the candidate's ggondae image while others urged him to listen more to young voters and sack "political parasites".
"His face turned darker" after the criticism, Mr Kim said, but "there was no censorship and he listened carefully and took notes. And in the end he accepted most of our suggestions".
The team created 29 YouTube short videos on Mr Yoon's and the party's pages, discussing policy ideas and generating more than 14.5 million views, in a country of 52 million people.
The strategy has helped lift Mr Yoon's popularity with 20-somethings above 40 per cent from around 30 per cent in early January, according to Realmeter.
"There was a lesson that brief yet strong messages could have a massive impact, especially on young generations and people who are apathetic about politics," said Yoon adviser Park Min-young, who has written about generational political shifts.
Liberal contender Mr Lee, after meeting with young men and mothers, proposed allowing public healthcare insurance to cover hair loss treatment.
In an appearance-obsessed country where plastic surgery is common, many young men believe baldness can harm career and marriage prospects, but uninsured treatments are expensive.
A 15-second video clip in which Mr Lee did a spoof of a hair-loss commercial sparked explosive reaction on social media as well as complaints from some experts and rival candidates that he was pushing a populist agenda.
He courted younger voters in January by calling for legalising the estimated US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) tattoo industry, which operates underground because South Korean law allows only doctors to perform the procedure.
Mr Lee is especially targeting young people who joined candlelight vigils leading up to the 2017 impeachment and ouster of conservative then-president Park Geun-hye.
Candlelight protester Lee Jung-in, who now heads a group of some 30 youth campaigners for candidate Lee, steered a successful movement to lower South Korea's voting age by a year to 18 in 2019.
"It is extremely rare that teenagers would have a chance to speak at rallies during any presidential elections, and political parties are generally not good at embracing young people," said the 19-year-old, who is not related to the candidate.
"We're aiming to persuade other young voters to join us, which I believe would bring a big change in further democratising the country's politics."