Blogs > HNN > Barack’s Infomercial: Too Cheesy for a Potential President?

Oct 31, 2008 9:01 am

Barack’s Infomercial: Too Cheesy for a Potential President?

In what is looking more and more like a campaign of nearly perfect pitch, Barack Obama turned in another virtuoso performance Wednesday night with his prime-time infomercial. Apparently weeks in the making, the infomercial pulled out all the stops. We saw snippets of Obama’s classic 2004 Democratic National Convention address. We saw photos from the Obama family album of Obama’s parents – and canned footage of World War II workers to help evoke the all-American lineage of Obama’s grandparents. We heard testimonies from Michelle Obama, Governor Bill Richardson, Senator Dick Durbin, and a retired Brigadier General patriotically named John Adams about the candidate’s wondrous qualities. We saw the candidate at rallies and we heard him giving the voters a more direct – and uncharacteristically subdued -- pitch. But we did not need to hear the candidate – and potential president – as narrator, telling the stories of a handful of Americans tossed around in today’s economic crosscurrents.

I confess when I first heard that Obama was buying thirty minutes of prime time, I assumed it was for a traditional, thirty-minute closing campaign address. I was excited in that evoked the mid-twentieth century campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy, of Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. I was curious to see how Obama – with his extraordinary oratorical skill -- would pull it off.

Of course, the campaign producers needed to produce a more varied, even herky-jerky, thirty minutes to keep the modern viewer engaged. And most of the half hour was compelling, although it was surprisingly sobering. The Obama campaign responded to the criticism that his earlier speeches were too lyrical and vague by setting their man in a mock Oval Office and having him talk substantively and directly into the television cameras, with a far more subdued tone. In fact, it was refreshing to hear him not speak in his trademark singsong.

The message also was a bit of a downer. The background music tended to be slow not stirring. And, following the recent economic meltdown, Obama chose to go with the more unnerving message that the nation is in crisis which upstaged his usual uplifting message that we can solve all the world’s problems by working together.

The infomercial was less effective, however, when Obama started narrating the stories of regular Americans in distress. This was what we might call the Joe-the-plumberization of American campaigning taken to yet another extreme. It started, in many ways, with Ronald Reagan’s ritual of pointing to one or two representative Americans during his State of the Union addresses. It led many candidates, especially this year, to insert moments of faux intimacy into their speeches and debate appearances wherein they told the story of one voter by name, whom they had met and supposedly bonded with on the campaign trail. In the third presidential debate – and subsequently – John McCain took this technique even farther with his deification of Joe the plumber. (Of course, following the natural course of American celebrity, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, now has a Wikipedia entry, and a manager).

In the Obama infomercial, these vignettes, while poignant, were just too stagey and too cheesy. They relied on a false intimacy between the candidate and the real life voters. There is an element of condescension and objectification here too which is unfortunate. But above all, it just seemed undignified to have the potential President of the United States reduced to the role of voice-over narrator. It reminded me of what Dwight Eisenhower muttered after cutting dozens of quickie campaign commercials during the 1952 campaign: “To think that an old soldier should come to this.”

The Obama infomercial had more than enough rich material to be absolutely entrancing and convincing without reducing some voters to props and the candidate to a Hallmark card chronicler. Yes, politics is showmanship and a campaign is an elaborate exercise in story-telling. But even in the heat of a campaign, it is good to remember that the candidate – especially this one this week – is a potential president. And a little distance from the cheesiest of techniques would do a lot to maintaining the dignity of a potential leader of the free world.

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james joseph butler - 11/2/2008

"Too stagey, too cheesy, false intimacy". Gil where have you been the last 20 months? From Ralph Nader to Barack Obama to Rudy Guiliani to Ron Paul, not a single candidate has spared the voter from the full spectrum commercial attack. Subtley and discretion never were and never will be winning weapons in a national election. Too many know too little.

Lorraine Paul - 11/1/2008

"...leader of the free world." Wasn't that title made redundant after 1991?

....and the rest of the world looks on dumbstruck!!!

David Holland - 10/31/2008

Dignity? Cheese?

Perhaps the author might have noticed that the entire presidential race lost its dignity and became cheesy some time ago. He forgot to mention the crowds unabashedly chanting "USA! USA!" at a time when we have shown a blatant disregard for international law, we've undercut our own domestic civil rights, and we've ignored the concerns of our allies and the world. Enter canned citizens "Joe the Plumber" and "Tito the Builder"...oh! and "youbetcha," Sarah Palin (wink!).

Dont' mistake me, I agree that all of this rhetoric by both sides is cheesy. Its just that some of us prefer an aged Stilton over Velveeta Cheese spread.

James W Loewen - 10/31/2008

The piece is OK, unlike its title, but where is the history? the sociological analysis? This is Troy's reaction. I have mine. I didn't write mine up, because it wasn't a whole lot better than yours! Neither is Troy's. To make the grade and get on HNN, shouldn't a piece have some WORK in it? So we can LEARN from it?