Tuned In

Getting to Know You (and Him): The O-mercial

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Why do political parties put their conventions on TV? You get a big block of network prime time and get to put on a show. You can air slick produced pieces about your biography. You can get your colleagues and former rivals to come on stage and tell the world how wonderful you are. You bring ordinary people on stage and promise to solve their problems. The whole thing climaxes in a stirring speech in front of a cheering crowd. Then you get a bounce in the polls for about a week. 

Barack Obama: American Stories, then, seemed to be devised in answer to the question: How do we throw ourselves a mini convention, six days before the election?

I have no idea how undecided voters think, and I’m not going to pretend to guess whether this is going to move votes or not. So don’t take this as political analysis. But here’s what I thought worked, and didn’t. 

The ordinary-American stories worked very well, emotionally and aesthetically. At times I thought I was watching Friday Night Lights, what with all the plangent Americana music, small-town tableaus and little league football. Just on the level of craft, the stories used striking images (the shopping cart in the parking lot, shot from the P.O.V. of the spinning wheel, stuck with me) and details (the mom with health-care expenses, showing her family’s food portioned out by shelf in the fridge, to encourage them to make it last a week). 

The segments also did something that pretty much every Obama artifact does: they fit into the same aesthetic, embodied in the O logo, the sans serif Gotham lettering, the shades of blue. (If there was a swath of sky to get into the shot, the camera was going to show it to you.) Nixon taught politics how to sell a President; the Obama campaign has learned how to brand a President, a la Nike or Apple. [Update: See Aaron Barnhart’s perceptive take on the inf-O-mercial for more on how Nixon used TV—the second time around, in 1968.]

All those brands use a chosen set of images, colors and sensibilities to reinforce the core messages of the product, and they unite everything the company does. An ad is something you watch; a brand is something you inhabit. (Curiously, the one network show Obama did not pre-empt was Pushing Daisies, a highly stylized show with an intense color palette that some people criticize as too precious. Go figure!)

I’m not sure what set of intangibles the semiotics of Obama’s branding are meant to nonverbally convey—patriotism, consistency, pragmatism, the future?—but whatever they are, the documentary spots reinforced them, visually at least. 

Message-wise, the voters’ stories—chosen from swing states Missouri, Ohio and New Mexico, plus Kentucky, I suppose just to rub it in—did an unusual thing for campaign advertising. They put the candidate literally in service of someone else, by narrating their stories. (While, obviously, serving his own interests.) As a narrative device, it was a way to shield against the obvious attack, that this was a vainglorious, egotistical, triumphalist use of campaign money and airtime. Your stories need to be told, was surely the intended message, so I’m going to let you tell them, Then I’ll give you my solutions. Because this campaign—all together now!—is All About You. 

Which is why all of that seemed jarring when intercut with the stuff that was, well, All About Him. When we cut away from the documentaries to Obama describing his policy in that Faux-val Office, I wanted the stories to keep going instead. But fine: I understand that the piece wouldn’t work as politics if he didn’t offer solutions and describe his program. (Although here, his addresses didn’t always seem to fit the American stories we’d just seen, like when he followed the story of the retired couple in Ohio with runaway prescription expenses but didn’t talk about health care.) There was also—as campaigns are wont to do—a desire to cram in every message and goal of the campaign, though foreign policy definitely took a back seat to the economy.

But I would have cut every single politician from the piece, with the exception maybe of Joe Biden, and made room for a couple more of the stories. I don’t know; to wiser political minds than mine, maybe there was some microtargeting case that X thousand voters in Ohio, New Mexico and Virginia would be moved by seeing their governors get air time. But having a bunch of Democrats tell us how wonderful a figure a fellow Democrat is clashed with the ordinariness of the other stories. (What’s so persuasive here? Wow, a bunch of VP short-listers possibly in line for Cabinet positions have nice things to say about him! He must really be special!) They (and the Obama-seated-at-desk segments) seemed like campaign commercials within a commercial. 

Those testimonials are, however, what you get on screen at a convention, and we got that and more. We got the bio segments on Obama’s father and mother, tying them in both to his character development and his health care policy. We got the boilerplate about his having “changed the rules in Washington.” We got the testimonial from his wife and the humanizing scenes of him with his kids. And we got, at the end, the catharsis: the climactic speech, in front of cheering, nodding, affirming faces, and call to action. (Here, the end of a stump speech in Florida, retailored to the national audience: “And Florida—and America…”) All neatly miniaturized and crammed into 30 minutes. 

Does this mini convention produce a mini bounce, a maxi one, none at all or a backlash?  Did it come across (to anyone who doesn’t already know who they’re voting for) as stirring or artificial?  I have no idea. (If I have to guess anything, it would be that, as usual, the things that impress me make no difference to other voters and the things I think are bad are the most effective.)

But it did get the whole business out of the way quicker. Maybe we could do every convention like this from now on.