Monday, October 24, 2016

The Most Effective Campaign Commercial of All Time

For whatever reason the internet loves hyperbole -- particularly of the sort that ignores all but the last eighteen months in the sweep of human history. I had this pointed out to me in 2002 by a smart colleague at my workplace, recounting the tale of a student of his who had just uploaded an essay entitled "The Twenty Greatest Blu-Ray Movies of All Time," and who then refused to see the irony of same when my colleague patiently tried to point it out to him. We all do this, now: Things change so much faster than they used to that we forget how recent the distant-seeming stuff really is.

So forgive me while I chew some precious bandwidth to make the argument that Hillary Clinton's latest one-minute spot, "Captain Khan," is very probably -- and will very probably be remembered for a long time as -- the single most devastatingly effective political advertisement, ever.

But first do yourself the honor of watching it again, because it's worth it.

...*Wow*. Just, wow. But is it the best political commercial of all time?

We all remember the other de facto nominees for the title: from the original campaign spot, "Ike for President," to the "Daisy Girl" ad for Johnson in 1964, to "Nixon Now" in 1972, to Reagan's "Morning in America" in 1984, to George Bush Senior's "Willie Horton" in 1988. All of them lay claim to one superlative distinction or another, and in a hypothetical top-ten list of the most effective campaign ads for television, they would all enjoy a pride of place -- especially now that television advertising is rapidly and mercifully going the way of the manual typewriter. All of these other campaign ads will be remembered for the starkest of reasons, good and bad, and they all deserve it.

But here's the thing. Whatever singular distinction might be accorded to each of those other spots, the "Captain Kahn" advertisement surpasses that previous standard-bearer on the same criterion, and it does this across the entire list. It is better as a political TV-ad in the way that Unforgiven was a better western: Not just excellent, not just peerless, but somehow form-defining after the fact: the specimen a time-traveler would use to instruct the auteurs at the dawn of the very idea of the genre. And then, when it's done being better than each of those other ads -- when it's over -- it is then even better in a way that is both more subtle and more devastating and, dare I say, no accident. I'll get to that presently. But first the ways the spot itself, excels.

It is more effectively indirect than the Ike For President spot. For most of us it is extremely difficult to imagine the challenge of making an effective television commercial for a political campaign in 1952. One whiff of incivility (at least by today's standards), and the whole thing would have backfired with the force of a newly-tested H-bomb. So in order to break the self-imposed campaign armistice in the early days of television advertising, Roy Disney and his production team had to fashion something that was catchy and up-beat, but which also managed a subtly effective contrast with the incumbent Democratic Party, who by that point had held the White House for twenty solid years.

Watch the ad again and you'll notice that it is we who don't want John, or Dean, or even Harry -- the last of whom happened to be the President of the United States at the time the commercial aired. This was near-sacrilege, at least by the established norms of decorum and broadcast civility of the age, but dressed up as a bouncy cartoon. And make no mistake: it was a devastatingly negative ad, and it was devastatingly effective. "Hey, yeah," you can all but hear the viewing audience saying, "we really *don't* want any more of those rascals! Let's go over to the other side and have some *fun* for a change!"

Sixty-four years later, many but not all persons viewing the Captain Khan spot are aware of its poignant backstory. At an otherwise non-descript time slot on the Tuesday of this year's Democratic National Convention, Khan's father Khizr moved the audience to tears with a spontaneous address contrasting the sacrifice of his son to the privileged background of people like Donald Trump. The effect was to goad Trump into days of self-immolating tweets and counter-punches, in the process securing the lasting disgust of significant swathes of the viewing public, including many from within his own party.

With that kind of setup, the October spot made by the elder Khan for the Clinton Campaign could easily have been shrill and nakedly antagonistic. It could have started with a sort of, "by now you know who I am, so let me tell you who Mr. Trump is instead" offensive, and it could have gotten very, very direct and personal and ugly indeed. Goodness knows that's the spot I would have agitated for if my son had been a Muslim American soldier who'd died serving his country, and I don't even have a son.

Instead the power of the Captain Khan spot is refracted through a lens of poignant desaturation. Khizr delivers his remarks as a pure, almost monotone recitation of the facts surrounding the Captain's tragic and heroic death. We don't even hear Mr. Trump's name, or see his face, until forty-three seconds in. We all know what's coming, and it's withheld from us -- building in tension and the promise of a father's wrath -- until the wait becomes the power behind the message, all by itself. Like the climactic payoff of a tiny, soulfully effective motion picture, we don't see the bad-guy until his spirit has so inhabited the thing that we feel ourselves reacting as much to that fact as to what comes after his appearance on the stage. (It also cleverly makes Trump look weak, into the bargain: "You'll wait for your screen-time and like it, tough guy," the subtext seems to say. "This isn't about you." Because it isn't.) And this, remember, is only one way in which the ad is so effective.

It is also more terrifying in its portents of the other team's victory than the Daisy Girl ad. Some of the spots on this list are effective even today, completely out of context; others are more you-had-to-be-there propositions. The Daisy Girl ad is squarely in the latter camp, if only for the bloody turn that Lyndon Johnson's own legacy took in the years to follow.

In 1964 a popular and sympathetic Johnson was standing for his first election to a full term (which would later turn out to be his only full term) as President, after ascending to the job in the most ghastly of circumstances. No front-bench Republican dared challenge the sympathetic mood of the country in that election cycle, and so the party found itself more or less stuck by default with a mid-sixties-hybrid of Pat Buchanan's subtle ideology and Donald Trump's gift for tact, Barry Goldwater.

By all accounts Goldwater was at least as unhinged, relative to the political spectrum of his day, as the alt-right crowd is now: the man who said, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." And meant it. With a straight face. On National television. And the GOP nominated him for President because they needed somebody and the alternative was Bob Taft, of whom I'd be willing to bet you've never even heard.

At this point Johnson was probably cruising to a 31-state victory in the same way that Mrs. Clinton was probably cruising to a 31-state victory at this time last week. But no battle-hardened campaign veteran like LBJ was going to leave the thing to that much chance. Instead he put his people directly on the task of contrasting his own surprising social liberalism with the apparently cavalier demagoguery of his opponent, reaching all the way into the process to emphasize his personal conviction that the choice wasn't just between right and wrong, but life and death. The resulting message was as clear as it was evocative: "We must love each other, or die. If you vote for Goldwater -- or even just stay home -- you're taking the ultimate risk." And, let's admit it, you probably were.

But where the Daisy Girl is unflinchingly in-our-face about that aspect of its message (what's more in-your-face than a hydrogen bomb, roasting a little girl?), the Captain Khan spot cleverly spares itself the risk of alienating its far less credulous audience in this way. Because it doesn't have to. Instead the approach is to coyly suggest, one might say coyly remind, on the subject of how awful a Trump Presidency would be: and it does so without even so much as a syllable of audible speech from the big orange one himself. Yes, for four seconds, starting at 0:43, we see images from a typically awful Trump rally hosted by a typically awful Trump, as one might expect of such a spot in such an election as the one we're having now. But then a truly brilliant thing happens. At 0:47, we cut to the Khan's dining room, where Mr. and Mrs. Khan sit arm-in-arm at one end of a table, with the same Trump-rally footage airing on a television at the other. At this moment, Mrs. Khan melts -- almost collapses, really -- into her husband's embrace: repulsed and horrified by what she's hearing. "It's going to be like this," is the clear message. "It may not stop if he loses, but it most definitely won't stop if he wins. Don't let your future be four years of reacting in just this same way, every night, to your television." It's a devastatingly effective warning about the possible future that awaits us all, made even more effective precisely because....

It makes this case in a more directly and unapologetically emotional way than the Willie Horton ad. As some loyal readers may know already, I was a Republican up to, and regrettably through, the 1988 Presidential election, when I cast my first-ever vote for George H. W. Bush. And no, I am not about to tell you that the Willie Horton spot was the one that closed the deal for me, so calm down.

(If you're curious, the spot that *did* close the deal for me was called "Gorbachev," and while I can't link to it directly you can view it by following this link, then mousing over the thumbnail videos for Bush at the bottom of the page until the rollover message says "Gorbachev." I'm not proud that this spot worked on me -- but then again I was eighteen years old, and a recent graduate of *The Day After*, and it may be difficult to imagine now, but foreign policy actually was a pretty big reason for choosing a candidate in the time before the Wall came down. I digress.)

Meanwhile enough ink has been devoted already to just how odious and race-baiting and generally awful the Willie Horton spot was, so we won't go there either. What is less-well remembered -- perhaps because of how painful it is to ponder -- was how completely the spot eviscerated the fortunes of Michael Dukakis as a credible choice among undecided white voters, of whom there were an unusually large amount in that particular election cycle.

If you were white, undecided, and of a certain ... persuasion, well, suffice it to say that there was a before the Willie Horton ad, and there was an after. And after, you weren't undecided anymore. True, Mr. Dukakis did much to sink his own fortunes, but the Willie Horton spot was the moment political junkies remember the way the general public remembers where they were when they heard about the space shuttle. As horrible as it was, it was completely beyond effective response. A deal-breaker.

In this arena, the challenge for the Clinton team has been how to shock the public regarding a person for whom shock is a calling card -- to go bigger than a man who is already so vile, and so pleased with himself about it, that his supporters consider his repugnance to be a selling point. The good news is that there probably aren't many undecided voters left in the country, and so with this information the challenge of a negative case about the other guy can be focused more effectively on motivating the soft supporters in the prospective winner's own camp. "Just how bad will it possibly be?" some of us have wondered. "Just how much worse?"

This much worse, is the spot's answer. Worse enough to leave a gold-star father, his honesty and integrity already vetted, choking back the most sincere and heartbreaking tears I've ever seen on my TV. In those final few seconds of the Captain Khan spot, when a heretofore measured and restrained Khizr Khan finally breaks down, we all understand what's at stake. There is simply no way that, through cavalier disregard or white privilege or some combination of the two, we can permit ourselves to phone-in our support for the better angels of our nature, and neglect to vote. In Khan's cracking words, we understand at a stroke that the very meaning of our decency is on the table. And Khan gets all of this across while barely saying anything at all. So how do you go big, in destroying a man like Donald Trump? You do it by going quietly, painfully small. And of course that's rarely enough by itself, so you don't roll the dice by leaving things there, either. Which is the last reason -- or so it would seam -- why the Captain Khan spot is so remarkably effective: 

It is more affirming of its own candidate (and much more subtly so) than Morning in America or Nixon Now. The real problem incumbents have -- and really Hillary Clinton is almost an incumbent-by-proxy in 2016 -- is that the American public loves novelty so much that they have an irksome habit of turning their backs on popular figures for no better reason than that those figures have gotten too familiar. Thus it is that, in order to secure the support of a face-weary electorate, the better-known candidate must paint a picture of him- or herself as the more palatable alternative, and not just tear the other side down. Nixon and Reagan both did their share of tearing the McGoverns and Mondales of the world down, let's be clear about that. But they never risked leaving things that way, in the same style as Johnson could afford to because he had the sympathy side of the equation already sewed up. Instead Reagan and Nixon each had to offer us an affirmative argument for supporting the good guys, too.

Few remember how close Nixon came to electoral oblivion before he rose up to embrace an oblivion completely of his own design. Vietnam was going badly for the United States in 1969 and 1970 and 1971, the Moratorium had badly eroded the public's sympathy for Commander-in-Chief, and as such Mr. Nixon had sunk so low in approval ratings that he seriously wondered aloud if he might not even be renominated. And then he did what Nixon had done so many times before that he came, tragically, to depend on it: He roared back to the highest pinnacles of his popularity in the spring and summer of 1972, first with the "Great Silent Majority Speech" (urging support of his illegal incursions into Cambodia), and then with his gob-smacking trip to China. His popularity exploded. The Democrats, with a little help, self-destructed their only credible nominee, Ed Muskie. Then George McGovern's running mate was revealed to have received electroshock therapy, and his departure led to the campaign-hobbling spectacle of a gigantic public round-robin as to who was going to replace him. All with a suddenly measured and grown-up seeming President riding quietly and confidently above the fray. The time to support Nixon, in order to be part of a bandwagon headed to bigger and better things, was that very moment. The candidate was Nixon, and the time was now. The ad practically wrote itself.

Say what you will about Bonzo's sidekick, Ronald Reagan knew a good trick when he saw one and his team had no trouble recognizing all the parallels. The economy really was demonstrably better in 1984 than it had been in 1980, and patriotism and small-scale American enterprise were enjoying a breezy ride on the coattails of Paul Volcker's brilliant disinflation measures -- which as we know now were mostly, wrongly credited to the Gipper. Why not run a simple ad in which the campaign says how great things have gotten? Explicitly, directly, and with a carefully blushed montage and some dolcet toddies from a baritone voiceover? Why not indeed.

The Clinton Campaign exists in a reality so far removed from those days, so deeply divided and so much more cynical, as to make these previous affirmative messages seem quaint. These days nobody credits the President for the things he really has done, much less for any reflected economic light that might be bounced his way by a crafty Federal Reserve. No, to make an affirmative message in support of their gal, the Clinton team was going to have to -- once again -- go subtle. And boy howdy did they get it right on this score.

If you watch the Captain Khan spot a few dozen times as I have, and if you watch it very, very, very closely, you will notice something at 0:56 that you probably didn't catch the first time: Already the screen has dropped to black, signaling that the spot is over except for the tag-line and disclaimer. And the tag-line, as we all know by now, is "Stronger Together," set against a campaign image of the candidate herself.

But not immediately.

For a meaningful fraction of a second, the words fade in against the backdrop, all, by, themselves. "Vote for our team because we, as a country, really are stronger together. Yes, we could place a divisive figure at the head of our affairs, or we can have ... wait for it, just a fraction of a second longer, yes: we can have this, centrist, pragmatic, at times frustratingly inclusive figure, instead. The bandwagon to be sure one makes it onto this time around, is Clinton's."

Conclusion? On its face, then, we would seem to have met a one-minute television spot that is at once more effectively indirect than Ike For President, more unifying than Morning in America or Nixon Now, more terrifying than the Daisy Girl ad, and more emotionally affecting than Willie Horton. Roll credits, signature lines, peace out. Right?

Except that I believe what really makes this an effective ad, more than all the others, is what I imagine happening in living rooms all over the country the moment it is over. Because here's the biggest and most important thing about the Captain Khan spot:

It is even more effective at making the case against Trump, for the reactions it surely provokes from Trump supporters. At this point no one doubts the crass and petty divisiveness of Trump the Campaign or Trump the Man, either one. All over this country there are persons legitimately repulsed by everything about him and his politics, and others who will ignore literally any gaffe, any lie, any indiscretion, if it means "Making America Great Again," whatever that implies. So here's my theory: What if the Clinton Campaign knows that at least some of those polar opposites are coexisting under the same roof? What if the idea behind the Captain Khan spot was that a suburban woman, largely cowed by her boorish and overbearing husband (or brother or uncle or dad), might see not just the spot, but how those big and noisy men in her life reacted to the spot? What if the most effective aspect of this ad, is how effective it is?

Imagine for a moment a college football Saturday -- perhaps in Iowa or North Carolina or for God's sake even Utah. Picture a living room stocked with five noisy white guys and five quietly independent women, when the Captain Khan spot airs. To me the spot itself seems hardly even the point, in this visualization: Instead the point is the wildly overheated response likely to come from the men in the room, and what that response says to those five (much more persuadable) women, as they watch it unfold in front of them for whole minutes after play resumes on the field.

Trump supporters are ugly in a way that supporters of no major electoral candidate in this country have ever been ugly before. Pat Buchanan's rabble doesn't even blip the needle on the scale of how deplorable the Trump Train thinks, and behaves, and is. This is a fact that Clinton has already exploited by tweaking its ring-leader in all three debates. We've all seen it. But my question is, what if the blue team knows (perhaps through focus-group testing?) that they can also effectively damage Trump's candidacy by poking the eye of his supporters in the same way?

I can't even really imagine the things that roomful of Trump men would yell at the television and at each other when this commercial was over. Or maybe I just don't want to, to borrow an a-propos movie line. But what I can imagine is that it would be coarse and unhinged and self-evidently false, and that this behavior would not pass unnoticed by the saner people in the room. If that is part of the design of the Captain Khan spot the way I think it is, then it is truly a stroke of undiluted genius from beginning to end. There is no defending this man; there is no decency with him as the architect of our collective future; the familiar, unifying option is the only option, and this time that option is Hillary Clinton.

And the time, is, now.

Dave O'Gorman
Associate Professor of Economics
Santa Fe College
Gainesville, Florida

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