06 October 2010

Agitprop That's Too Clever By Half

For a political junkie, the month before a major election is like an extended Political Superbowl. Just as with the football big game, as gripping as the main event may be, I look forward to seeing the clever commercials.

The electorate always complains about negative ads, yet they are ordinarily quite effective to tar your opponent and depress their base. Negative ads also implicitly implant a comparison with your candidate, who is usually framed favorably. Because of the nature of campaigns, most negative ads are created on the fly with shoestring budgets and cheap graphics.

The turning point of the 1988 campaign was the infamous attack ad about “Willie Horton”. Govenor Michael Dukakis (D-MA) tried to project an image of competency as a technocrat who created “The Massachusetts Miracle”. Vice President Bush’s campaign seized upon opposition research that Al Gore used against Dukakis in the primaries about a prison furlow gone awry resulting in violent deaths. The resulting ad was able to focus the electorate on Dukakis liberal approach and portray him as soft and uncaring about crime.

After George H.W. Bush won the Presidency, Saturday Night Live had a savvy skit that perfectly parodied the campaign with a skit entitled “Bush’s Final Negative Ad”. It was intentionally over the top, piling on every scurrilous charge one after another, culminating with the tag line “On November 8th, you dodged a bullet. Bush: He beat a bad man.” The skit is also iconic as it supposedly has Bush, Sr.’s grandkids gathered around, which included a young Kirsten Dunst. While it was not meant to influence a voter, the skit was funny as the ad was short, intentionally over the top but it was able to focus on easily understandable campaign issues.

Rep. Alan Grayson’s (D-FL 8th) ad about Taliban Dan was ineffective because he is over the top and totally distorts his opponent’s position. This overbearing and obviously obfuscating ad created a sympathy factor which significantly increased Dan Webster’s campaign contributions and opened up a wide lead in the polls.

Another attack ad which backfires is the commercial John Dennis produced against his opponent Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA 8th). Granted, Dennis has a quixotic campaign against a high profile, well funded and established opponent so he needs to be bold to grab prospective voters’ attention. So he proudly produced a Wicked Witch ad which invokes a Wizard of Oz motif. So much so, the curtain is not drawn on the cliched motif until 2/3rds of the way through a minute ad. It is difficult to take Dennis seriously when I was left wondering if he was also playing the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion and the Wizard in the vignette. What really worked against message was emphasizing the laugh line of throwing water on the witch. Sure he was echoing radio talker Mike Gallegher, but it was imprudent to have a politician relishly voicing the line. It’s hard to believe that Pelosi could be depicted sympathetically, but Dennis did it.

Campaigns that focus on a female politician being a witch might magically create more sympathy than cast aspersions on her character. Take Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell. The Democrat Media/Campaign axis dug up distorted video footage on Jon Stewart’s show intimating that O’Donnell participated in sorcery activities in her youth. This was developed as a talking point that O’Donnell was a witch. This continued to garner attention to her longshot campaign as well as national campaign contributions. This ad hominem tact gave O’Donnell the opening to release a very human ad with the compelling lead line “I’m not a witch-- I'm you”. At least O’Donnell’s Democrat rival Chris Coons did not lead the charge that “She’s a witch”. Of course, considering Coons questionable past, the less he is seen, the better for the Democrats.

The other ad is a viral video by Synthetic Human Pictures entitled “ I'm Voting Republican”. It is a 2:49 piece that can most sympathetically be characterized as Socratic irony. It was a mockumentary which interviews a variety of stereotypical Republican voters answering why they are supporting the Grand Old Party.

The producers see themselves as producing works that “challenge the audience on both an emotive and intellectual level, pushing boundaries and opening up the human thought process.”
But after two vignettes, the caustic humor becomes predictable and the film just drags on. It reminds me of many Saturday Night Live skits where the writers have a funny premise and just refuse to end it, forcing the viewer to hit the fast forward button. The Zucker Brothers bombarded viewers with jokes in Airplane, but it was funny and unpredictable. One can see the Synthetic Human parries of parodies a mile away and in such rapid succession that one does not savor the sarcasm. On the other hand, this may be more of a comedy piece than intended as an opus to influence.

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