Celeb and Divine, Reviewed
The words “John McCain” and “tech-savvy” usually don’t go together. McCain has run a limited Internet campaign so far, and his Internet fundraising has lagged significantly behind that of his competitor. For most of the campaign thus far, Barack Obama has had a significant video lead as well—YouTube was full of adulatory Obama videos, while searches for “John McCain” turned up mostly negative hits. But in the last few days, the McCain campaign has started to narrow the gap. They have produced the two most interesting and controversial ads of the election season: “Celeb” and “Divine.”
The “Celeb” ad is brilliant—probably the best ad of the campaign thus far; certainly better than anything Obama has produced. The narrator explains that Obama is the “biggest celebrity on earth” (probably true), and that he won’t do anything about high oil prices (again, quite true). Basically, standard McCain talking points. But it is the videos that make the ad a masterpiece.
It shows Paris Hilton and Brittany Spears as the narrator comments on Obama celebrity status, implying that Obama is as competent as your average slutty supermodel. And these shots add controversy as well—the video got over 1.2 million hits on YouTube, and got extensive play on cable news.
Another clever detail in this ad which could be overlooked is the addition of “Obama, Obama” background chants. Most negative ads use the same basic strategy—an unflattering picture of the candidate against a black background is shown, the narrator gives the criticism in a flat, unappealing voice, and sad, discordant music plays. The ad attempts to transfer the negative feelings caused by the lighting, narration, and music to the candidate. (This is perfectly legitimate, by the way—all ads attempt to use transfer to sell their products).
“Celeb” takes this one step further. By adding the “Obama” chant, viewers get the chance to both see his and hear his name as he is accused of standing in the way of low oil prices. The chant makes the transfer much more effective.
This is a good ad, but the Obama campaign’s clumsy response to it makes it much more effective. Some of Obama’s supporters came unhinged—one Huffington Post blogger suggested it was a coded call to assassinate Obama (something about camera flashes). The consensus was that the ad appealed to just good old-fashioned racism—white woman were in an ad with a black (technically, biracial, but apparently one drop of African blood makes one just “black”) man, which would logically incite white voters into rage. Obama was inspired to point out that Republicans would attack him because he “doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills." All in all, “Celeb” worked perfectly. McCain couldn’t have asked for more.
“Divine” is nearly as good—and will almost certainly be as controversial. The ad takes on Obama’s carefully crafted cult of personality—that he is The One (Oprah), that he “is a symbol of America returning to our best traditions” (direct quote), that he “never” (direct quote) has any doubts, that lights shine down and convert people to his cause (a quote, but out of context), and his famous line promising that his candidacy will mark the time that the “rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal” (incredibly, a real quote). The ads ends with a clip of Charlton Heston as Moses shouting “behold His mighty hand” and parting the Red Sea as the Official Obama Presidential seal (Vero Possumus!) flies through the opening of the waters.
The ad works perfectly—it is suitably tongue-in-cheek, but it does make a larger point as well. The Heston clip is one of the few times a political ad has made me laugh out loud. The only criticism I have is that the “light beam will shine through -- will light you up -- and you will experience an epiphany” line is clearly taken out of context—Obama was joking, and a close watching to the ad makes that pretty clear (as Obama starts the line, watch the guy to Obama’s left chuckle).
McCain will have to run a good campaign to beat Obama. There have been time where his campaign was boring, or unresponsive, or clumsy. But these ads are exactly what his campaign needs, and hopefully are indications of things to come.