Last April, Super PAC American Crossroads revived the McCain campaign’s anti-celebrity attack ad with their own negative ad. Intending to polarize the electorate by differentiating Romney and Obama with regard to serious politics and popular culture, these ads illustrate the contradictions of celebrity and political culture in the contemporary moment. Take a look.
Both ads pejoratively frame Obama as a byproduct of Hollywood hype, while the current ad also mocks celebrity’s pleasure-inducing incitement to discover the “real” behind the image. Obama’s access to the center of media spectacle is not only misplaced, but also misrecognized. In the McCain campaign ad, the “real Obama,” is not what his charismatic image purports. Extending this theme, the new ad reveals a more complicated depiction of Obama’s celebrity, one in which his “cool” personal style is constructed visually in a pop montage of famous media moments laid over a mash-up of talk show/interview sound bites, Obama’s singing homage to Al Green, and the cult-like, ritual chanting of fans who make up this rock star’s crowd. The second ad shows how Obama, like the entertainment celebrity, works a persona that is both extraordinary and ordinary at the same time. His larger-than life image is the object of mass adulation, which wins him access to more intimate venues within the popular public sphere where he can strategically project his persona in order to appear personable, accessible, and even cool.
Such campaign personalization strategies are not new or unique to Obama. Increasingly, political campaigns situate their candidates to appear on pop TV formats, where candidates purposefully adopt the conventions of the format, chatting, joking, bantering, or even dancing with the host. The point is to suggest that they are not only popular but ordinary too and not socially removed from the people. Candidates perform to show us ostensibly who they really are. The cunningness of this new ad is in exposing the mechanism of celebrity’s reproduction (inadvertently) by insinuating that Obama’s real self is just more Hollywood hype, clearly unsuitable for the Presidency of the United States. The irony is that Romney is unlikely to bypass the “late-night” campaign stop. McCain certainly didn’t, and Romney has already done a cameo (albeit awkwardly) for Letterman’s “Top Ten List.” Besides, what better way to avoid serious political questions from journalists than to camouflage propaganda into hip and harmless entertainment?