Sunday, August 24, 2008

To Leni Riefenstahl, With Love...

Former Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn recently praised McCain’s overblown campaign commercials, saying that they will likely be an effective strategy in helping the Republican senator win the presidency. Penn was one of very few media commentators to have positive things to say about the now-infamous Britney/Hilton ad and the sardonic Obama-as-savior ad. While most of the media criticized these ads as vapid, devoid of any substantive political argument, Penn argued that despite their content, such extreme commercials have a tendency to dissuade voters. To “prove” his point, Penn referred to the Hillary Clinton “3am” ad, Walter Mondale’s 1984 “red phone” ad, and Lyndon Johnson’s iconic, fear-mongering “Daisy” ad from 1964.

But what I don’t understand is Penn’s assertion that McCain’s ad successfully “worked” like Clinton’s considering that she lost the nomination. Of course, one can argue that the ad helped scare up votes for Texas and Ohio when it aired there in March, but Obama’s success after Pennsylvania and Super Tuesday would argue that it had no lasting effect. What Penn doesn’t acknowledge is the media scrutiny and criticism those ads came under that hardly had a parallel when the Mondale or Johnson ads were released.

Parodies of the Clinton "3am" ad showed up on YouTube just days after its airing, just like the Paris Hilton “retort” showed up days after McCain’s ad. The mainstream media and online communities dissected these ads to no end. There was even a local television news report detailing the young girl sleeping in Clinton’s ad, who is now of voting age, revealing herself as an Obama supporter. This informed voters who would otherwise not know that such ads are largely made up of stock footage assembled together into the context that the creator pleases.

I believe the growing trend of dissecting political campaign ads by both the online community and the mainstream media (but primarily the former) will prove itself to be helpful towards creating a more objective (or, at least, cynical—and I mean that in the best possible way) political discourse. The fact that young people are showing that they understand that these ads as mere juxtapositions of text, audio, and images that can be arranged to mean any damn thing the author wants exhibits a new understanding of how visual media can manipulate public opinion. Thus, fear-inducing (“3am”) or mudslinging (“Paris/Britney”) can be taken in with their respective grains of salt as anybody with access to the web or iMovie understands that they can create such propaganda themselves with relatively limited materials.

Whether its used for political discourse or just a mind-numbing diversion, YouTube has been critical towards displaying the ease with which images can be manipulated and restructured in ways that alter their meaning. Take this fake trailer for The Shining for example, which uses new music and certain clips taken out of context to give a completely fabricated impression of what the movie really is:

Political ads, just like movies, are mere assemblages of visual and aural information, and their meaning can be reengineered just as easily.

Now, let’s take a look at the evolution of political campaign ads, starting with a famous 1960 John F. Kennedy ad (featured in the first season of Mad Men):

The ad feels just as old as it is, and works no differently than a commercial for cereal or cigarettes from the same era. There’s absolutely no information regarding Kennedy’s policies or why he should be President, simply an annoying jingle that will inevitably make you remember his name as you hear yourself humming along to it the rest of the day.

Now, take a look at LBJ’s aforementioned “Daisy” ad four years later:

This ad demonstrates the basic ideas of juxtaposition used to create meaning that we see in contemporary political advertising, just on a more nascent level. Cutting a shot of a cute girl with several shots of an atomic bomb, all with LBJ’s prophetic voice, pretty much slaps the viewer in the face with the message, “If you don’t want this to happen, vote for this guy.” This practice is not unlike showing an image of Obama juxtaposed with Paris and Britney, but McCain’s ad favors derision rather than LBJ’s blatant fear-mongering. That being said, LBJ’s ad is simultaneously so simplistic and over-the-top that it would never fly today. This was still the early 1960s, a time where middle America at large still believed what politicians and newsmen said—before the healthy dose of cynicism brought by student riots, hippies, and Watergate.

But, in contrasting Kennedy’s ad with Johnson’s, we see a huge difference in the operations of ready-made TV-friendly political discourse in four years. Kennedy’s ad contains the residue of Norman Rockwell’s 1950s, while Johnson’s reflects the era of a nation being divided inside by the Civil Rights movement and inducing fear of the outside through the threat of Communism—not to mention reflecting the fear of a nation that had seen the man whose name was in that catchy jingle die before their very eyes a year before.

Here’s a 1972 George McGovern ad, running against Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign during the worst days of the Vietnam War:

While this documentary-like ad gives the impression of an objectivity or straight-forward attitude lacking from most political campaign ads from then and now, the care and subtlety with which onlookers’ faces and McGovern’s words are juxtaposed suggests a new measure towards complexity in political campaign advertising (but then again, is there anything that feels less constructed than the "town hall meetings" of 1960s and 70s presidential campaigns?). It is also refreshing to see a politician attempt to say something that doesn’t sound like the bullshit rhetoric people simply want to hear. But McGovern lost in one of the biggest landslides in modern election history, so maybe there’s a reason such ads are rarely seen today.

Furthermore, even “non-bullshit rhetoric” can become rhetoric in itself. Notice how McGovern’s campaign used the word “change” as the theme of the ad. And just like with Obama’s campaign, once-inspiring words like these can lose meaning with their overuse, even to the politician himself.

The Candidate, a movie released during the same year of McGovern’s run stars Robert Redford as a no-bullshit politician running for senator in California, and chronicles how the no-bullshit guy becomes just like the rest. After his refreshing, original ideas have started to attract voters, Redford’s character goes on a campaign tour where those ideas turn into stump speeches, and have been repeated so much that they have become totally arbitrary to the politician himself. Check out this scene where the talking points for the politician have completely lost their meaning:

Here’s Ronald Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” ad from his 1984 reelection campaign:

This ad is interesting because it juxtaposes a word with dense ideological weight, “America,” with images that suggest what such a word is supposed to mean. This ad clearly defines what the Reagan idea of America means, totally oblivious to the possibility that it might be shutting out alternative interpretations (for instance, everybody in Reagan’s America seems to be white). “America” is a word that contains different meaning depending on who you are and where you’re from. Here’s a fascinating scene from the film The Parallax View (1974), starring Warren Beatty, that demonstrates how differing meanings can derive from the same word:

Here’s another Reagan campaign ad from ‘84:

I must admit, Reagan’s ads are quite fascinating and effective, much more interesting than most of today’s. What’s most surprising about this ad is that, unlike both the “Morning in America” ad and Reagan’s presidency, it acknowledges the multitude of opposing ideas, ideologies, and interpretations regarding issues that affect all Americans. Yet it suggests that we all conform to one just in case one side is right (and I think I know which side they’re referring to). This ad is indeed one intended to motivate fear, but not the same type of fear that LBJ would have us jump on board with. It’s subtler, calmly asking you to cross the fence, even helping you over, while saying to you, “I understand that you disagree, but I’m still correct.” But the ad, of course, doesn’t allow us to see the bear get shot. Some people say that Karl Rove’s tactics were effective, but even Bush Jr’s very own Goebbels wasn’t this clever.

Now, to conclude this brief history lesson, let’s look at the ads referred to at the beginning of this post:

So intent with meaning, yet so utterly meaningless.

NYC’s Museum of the Moving Image is running a feature on their website containing all the major Presidential campaign commercials since 1952. Definitely worth a look.