The Signal Through the Noise: Hillary Clinton “1984″ Video Mashup

Curator's Note

This widely circulating (2.5 million views and counting) video mashup of Hillary Rodman Clinton has been declared by at least one expert as "a watershed moment in 21st century media and political advertising." (San Francisco Chronicle). Like many discussions of political advertising in the public sphere, the ad itself is not usually examined through the lens of media history and theory. In punditry about this ad's impact on the Clinton and Obama campaigns, the video's meaning and its mode of digital creativity is posited as self-evident, and the dominant discourse forwards an implicit teleology that this video demonstrates a new media technique that will impact political discourse and decide elections. However, if we shift this discourse from political spin to alternative media practice, this video may seem to suggest "culture jamming 2.0." The Clinton attack ad is related to the Situationist practice of detournement, William Burrough's cut-up techniques, and the culture jamming strategies of Negativland and Adbusters, to name just a few fore-runners. In Mark Dery's well known formulation, culture jammers "introduce noise into the signal." One of the main roles of culture jamming is to attack and disrupt corporate mainstream media and its messages. But this viral attack ad seems only superficially related to that practice, mostly in its remix of a famous Ridley Scott-directed TV commercial, which helped the launch of the Macintosh computer in 1984. The new video mashup is a signal that cuts through the noise. This is not a simple inversion. More and more user-generated content appears online and participatory media culture continues to flourish. Given increased access to the audience through cable, satellite, cellular, and web-based technologies, the goal for many alternative media producers is no longer to introduce noise into a limited number of tightly controlled media channels, but rather to get their signal noticed in today's crowded and growing mediascape. And this viral attack ad did that quite successfully, with viewings of Youtube in the millions, and gaining wide notice among bloggers, TV commentators, and newspaper columnists. Thus, while this video lacks the critical bite it would have had in a previous media era, I am left wondering if Super Tuesday is going to look something like Grey Tuesday.


I wrote about this advertisement for Flow, and while I'm fascinated by the reworking of the Apple ad, I think I'm also pretty skeptical about the place of this ad within current political discourse. Still, the implied message (that voters want more control over the political process) seems to have come across loud and clear.

As I told my students, the strangest thing in my experience of this video is that the first thing I noticed was that the mashup had been done with the iPod remix of the 1984 ad, and not the original. On the one hand, I felt super-geeky, having paid so much attention to such a seemingly trivial detail. On the other hand, I keep thinking about that detail and its significance: are there substantive ideological differences between the original Mac revolution and the iPod revolution? The Mac drove personal computing out of the IBM lockstep, allowing users a freer kind of creativity. The Mac popularized the graphical user interface and made, for instance, desktop publishing possible. The iPod, much as I adore mine, has mostly changed the way we carry, listen to, and share music. Is Obama a Mac or an iPod?

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