Reflections On The Obama “Celebrity” Ad

Ken AshfordElection 2008Leave a Comment

UPDATE:  Okay THIS is the proper response to the latest McCain ad —

NICELY DONE!  Team Obama should turn this into an ad itself…


I agree with all these people (emphases are mine)

The Anonymous Liberal:

It appears that the McCain campaign’s new strategy is to portray Barack Obama as a "celebrity" in the sense of Brittany Spears and Paris Hilton, someone who sells magazines and attracts crowds but isn’t qualified to be president. Indeed, Obama isn’t just a run of the mill celebrity, according to McCain’s latest television ad, he’s "the biggest celebrity in the world."

This strikes me as a bizarre strategy for a number of reasons. First, as a factual matter, Obama clearly isn’t a "celebrity" in the sense that the McCain campaign is implying. He’s not someone who achieved fame outside of politics and then tried to translate that into a political career. In other words, he’s not Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger (someone should ask McCain whether he thinks they were qualified). To the contrary, to the extent Obama is famous now, it is solely a product of what he’s accomplished as a politician. And it’s not as if the American people are going to be fooled on this point. They follow celebrities closely and most of them had never heard of Barack Obama until he began running for president.

But putting all that aside, what makes the McCain campaign think that this particular line of attack is going to work? First, if you’re not really paying close attention to the ad (or if you have the sound off), what you take away is an image of Obama speaking in front of massive adoring crowds waiving American flags. Second, even if you do pay attention to the ad, it seems to me that it doesn’t really help McCain. Negative ads like this are primarily aimed at low information voters, people who haven’t really formed opinions of the candidates. But if you don’t know much about Obama, you’re likely to be struck most by the claim in the ad that he is now "the biggest celebrity in the world." That’s likely to peak people’s curiosity. If I didn’t know much about the guy, I would want to know what it is about him that has made him such a phenomenon. Why is he so beloved by so many people?  How did he go from some guy I’d never heard of to "biggest celebrity in the world"?

And finally, even if this ad works as intended and makes people think of Obama as some sort of vapid celebrity, what exactly does that accomplish? All it will do is set the bar lower for Obama as we move into the major general election events, such as the convention speech and the debates. If people think Obama is Paris Hilton, they’re going to be blown away by his debate performance.

Jurassicpork from Brilliant at Breakfast:

[McCain’s ad is taking a] stupid (not to mention a losing) risk to acknowledge Obama’s growing popularity and to try to portray it as a weakness rather than a strength. Sour grapes make for lousy Koolaid.

James Wolcott at Vanity Fair:

I have watched enough television during incarceration to have a few points to make about the McCain campaign’s new anti-Obama "celebrity" ad.

1) Obama looks so cool, upbeat, and confident in the ad that his smiling, waving, striding presence provides a "lift" that doesn’t simply contradict the admonitory tone of the voiceover text, but visually drowns it out through sheer pow of personality. It’d be like trying to warn teenagers in the fifties about the dangers of rock and roll, then showing concert footage of Elvis at his most charismatic–great way to create converts, guys!

2) Regardless of the racial-sexual subtext being purveyed, referencing Britney Spears and Paris Hilton seems a bit tired and dated, the older generation scolding the younger. Picking on Spears in a political ad seems like poor sportsmanship (she’s hardly done the harm to the culture that Ann Coulter has), and in her wealth, privilege, and lathed blondness, Paris Hilton resembles a younger version of Cindy McCain–there’s an almost daughterly resemblance, an enjoined twirl of ruling class DNA. So using her as an object of derision doesn’t quite gel.

3) The closing profile shot of McCain, head tilted as if basking in the soft heavenly glow of Reagan above, is not only corner and kitschy but reduces the candidate to a postage stamp–this, after portraying Obama as a fully engaged energy packet.

4) America is a country based on celebrity, a country where nearly everybody wants to be a celebrity, an American Idol, and decrying the cult of celebrity is an empty exercise in moralizing. After JFK, Reagan, and Bill Clinton, the candidate as glamour figure is already wired into our collective psyches, and Fred Thompson’s celebrity status didn’t seem to trouble Republicans when he looked like a contender, until they realized his gravitas was indistinguishable from indigestion.

5) The real message of the McCain ad is that they’re envious of Obama’s elan vital, and are reduced to mocking what they covet, Envy makes a person look petty, and a petty, peevish John McCain will be indistinguishable from the Bob Dole of 1996 if he doesn’t "big up." Right now his campaign is making Obama look like the mature one, which may explain why at least one longtime McCain loyalist is barking from the shadows.

Steve Soto says the ad is "a direct slap at the adoring crowds Obama gets."  Indeed.  He adds:

Actually, that’s pretty funny, if not outright envious. But let’s seen how the Obama campaign responds to their opponent belittling the American public in an attempt to get everyone to ignore that McCain’s energy and economic policies don’t add up. I haven’t seen Obama’s national ads (where are they?), but it seems clear that McCain has thrown down the gauntlet and said that Obama is nothing more than a lightweight celebrity, and not a serious candidate. If there was a time for Obama to use a Tier One/Tier Two effort and go right at McCain on real issues and the holes in McCain’s agenda and rhetoric, now’s that time.

And I think Obama did just that: