Tuned In

"Yes We Can": That Other Big Ad Last Weekend

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Other than the Mike Huckabee / Chuck Norris spot and the Hillary Sopranos parody, the two most memorable ads this campaign season are notable for (1) not being TV ads, (2) being for Barack Obama and (3) not coming from the Obama campaign. (I’m not including Obama Girl, if you’re wondering.) The first was the viral Hillary 1984 ad. The second, from the Black-Eyed Peas’ Will.i.am, is as I type the second most popular video of the day on YouTube. (Who can hope to defeat “Britney Spears Mum Hits a Paparazzo Camera”?)

The spot, in which Will.i.am and numerous musicians, actors and models put an Obama speech to music, started flying around the Internet at the end of last week. It’s a cool ad. But is it an effective one? As I realize every time I review Super Bowl ads, it’s a lot easier to judge the former than the latter.

Mandatory boring paragraph: As I’ve disclaimed before, I plan to vote for Obama–I’d rather put that out there ad nauseam than have anyone think I’m trying to hide anything from them. (I know, it’s shocking, but journalists actually do vote.) I’m conscious of not trying to fluff for him, but in sheer pop-meets-politics terms, this is fascinating stuff. So a few thoughts on what the ad does and doesn’t do, pro and con, and then I’m curious to hear yours.

* Above all, the stars and the music embody the cultural pitch that Obama himself embodies. They’re young (mainly). They’re multiracial. They’re multicultural. The music is cross-cultural too–a little Redemption Song, a little U2 ballad, a little hip-hop. (I’m sure there’s a more direct example of where we’ve heard those particular four chords before that’s not coming to me.) You could say that the Obama campaign–the Obama personal mythos too–is the political equivalent of the rainbow-coalition Black-Eyed Peas. There’s even John Legend, to represent for Obama’s important Starbucks demographic. And don’t miss one pointed line: “Si se puede,” the Spanish-language original slogan that Obama’s “Yes We Can” is derived from, and an overture to the Hispanic vote he’s trying to make inroads among.

* So what’s missing from the picture? Not many people over 40, to start with. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Herbie Hancock, Kate Walsh (40 even, actually). [Update: And Harold Perrineau! Thanks for the reminder, Chaddogg.] If I put myself in the shoes of a middle-aged woman or a pensioner or a union worker a decade from retirement, am I getting the message that the Obama campaign is more or less for young, pretty people?

* On the other hand: this is America. Who advertises with anything but young pretty people? One colleague I talked to threw out the theory that the demo of the cast here may actually appeal to baby boomers who prefer to think of themselves as forever young. (Drink Obama! The choice of a new generation!) It’s a similar theory to the one that the Kennedy endorsements might help Obama with boomers, because it allows them to understand his campaign in terms of their youth. In which case, the Jesse Dylan endorsement (Bob’s son and the video’s director) may be the most valuable of all.

* On yet another hand: another Democrat endorsed by a whole bunch of Hollywood celebrities. Ask President Kerry how well that worked for him. There’s a fine line between capturing pop-culture energy and making a campaign seem shallow by association, and, I don’t know, maybe it would have been better to make a music video with musicians only. Watching Scarlett Johannson work up her nerve in front of the microphone (Will she sing? Will she?) is a little distracting. And does it enhance one’s feminist cred to get the endorsement of a singer from the Pussycat Dolls? (I had to type the name that way because, and I am not making this up, Tuned In’s profanity filter is picking it up as a swear word. Fixed!)

* But we are spared hearing any celebrity endorse Obama in his or her own words. Rather, the ad makes his words the star and calls attention to him. Musically, this is an impressive marriage of form and content: it makes literal the musical qualities of Obama’s stump speech–call-and-response, meter, repetition, changing up rhythm (that repeated “Yes. We. Can.” at the end) and refrain.

* On the other hand again: people who don’t support Obama criticize him for being all music, no lyrics, all platitude, no specifics. Right or wrong, this ad is not going to undercut that. It’s all about selling the intensity of an emotion–and the emotion and tone is not likely to appeal to those Clinton/Edwards I-want-a-fighter voters who say that Obama wants us all to sing Kumbayah together.

* Fair to say, however, that this is not a video out to convert the unlikely. It’s aimed at inspiring, and at persuading the favorably inclined that they have the chance to join a movement, something with real transformative power. Whether it can gets into the whole philosophy of what political ads can and can’t do effectively. (Inspiration is nice, but if you’re already an Obama voter, it’s not like you can pull the lever harder now.) Maybe it encourages activism and involvement, maybe it taps into that Barack-is-California gestalt that Maria Shriver was getting at. Or maybe it’s another in a long history of celebrity endorsements that make pretty video and don’t do much.

That’s where you come in. Where does this rate on your ad meter?