Tuned In

Ring My Bell: Why the Hillary Ad Works

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I’ve been writing a lot this election cycle about the importance of viral and surrogate videos; the other day, I wrote that there hadn’t yet been a traditional campaign ad that has had the impact of what we’ve seen this season on YouTube. I may have to amend that now; if Hillary Clinton does well tonight, a lot of credit will probably go to a very old-fashioned TV spot: her “red phone” ad.

I call it a very old-fashioned ad because, as others have pointed out already, it’s apparently heavily inspired by an ad Walter Mondale used effectively against Gary Hart in 1984 (ad starts about 10 seconds in):

For all their similarities, though, there’s one difference that makes Hillary’s ad especially effective. It’s not the message. It’s not the narration. It’s not even those adorable little children whom Hillary is going to save from being eaten by terrorists.

It’s the phone.

The red phone never actually rings in the Mondale ad. But boy, does it ever in Clinton’s. Ringing, ringing, ringing. Six damn times. In a movie, real life or an ad, an unanswered phone automatically creates a sense of tension and anxiety–I feel it, uncontrollably, when I re-watch the ad even though I know what’s coming. Just pick up the damn phone, somebody! Answer it!

And of course, someone does–Hillary, who restores the aural calm and order, takes care of the problem, silences that freaking phone so we can get some shut-eye. You can argue the implicit charge about Barack Obama if you want, the underlying debate about experience vs. judgment and so on. But that’s not the level this ad works on: it works, brilliantly, by creating tension, tension, tension and finally relief–and putting a face on that relief.

You can debate policy all you want, but sometimes politics is just a matter of knowing the right button to push. Or the right bell to ring.