Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Brutal Obama Attack Ad: Firms

What you see above is the latest salvo in the Obama-Bain onslaught. It's an ad called "Firms." It is an attempt (another attempt in a seemingly endless stream) to paint Romney as a wealthy 1%-er job destroyer.

The Ad
The ad is a 30-second slot and will be playing in saturation mode in the key battleground states. The only sound is Mitt Romney singing America the Beautiful ... off key. It begins in some Romney venue (apparently for a few weeks during the primaries he sung America the Beautiful quite a bit) and then moves us to an empty factory where a "paper" image (creased so we can see it is supposed to be paper--like a newspaper) gives us block-letters about Romney outsourcing jobs to Mexico. The quote is from the LA Times.

We take a car-ride by a closed factory. The sun is going down behind it and the yard is desolate through a chain-link fence. The paper says that Romney's firmed shipped jobs to Mexico and China. Romney's voice swells here--but it gets a tin-sounding echo and reverb thrown in ... because now he's supposed to be singing in that vast empty space.

We're in an empty boardroom. The lights are on, but no one's home. The paper has the Boston Globe saying  Romney outsourced jobs to India.

We go outside again. The sky is sunny--but dim. From the left--is that a flag? It is--the Swiss flag--waves over a river. The paper tells us: "He had millions in a Swiss bank account." (ABC News). We hear the flag as Romney's voice dims a little.

Then we're looking out over a sea with palm-trees in our view (no beach). The paper says: "Tax havens like Bermuda" (Vanity Fair) ... And the Cayman Islands (the view shifts). Now we see the empty beach and beautiful blue-green ocean. The edges of the view are always dimmer than the center creating an encroaching sense of gloom and now the screen goes black.

MITT ROMNEY'S NOT THE SOLUTION says the text at 27 seconds. HE'S THE PROBLEM appears.

What Does It Mean?
In this case it's pretty obvious: there is very little 'subtext' here: Romney, singing a patriotic song off-key with a little help by audio manipulation verbally portrays his "distance" from the the graveyards of destroyed jobs with little 'official-looking' placards to help you along. Part one is: he out-sourced to the most hated of the usual subjects (Mexico--for illegal immigrant traction, China for our-next-enemy traction, and India for tech-support-rage traction). Part 2 is his supposedly-vast Richie-Rich over-seas holdings which are, of course, 'shady' (the Swiss Bank Account in cinema signifies illicit holdings even as the Swiss banking system was reformed quite some time ago).

The use of the Swiss flag (with flapping sound) calls attention to the fact that Romney, for his alleged patriotism  is placing his money where his mouth (in this case literally) isn't. The glittering beaches are exotic vacation destinations that the target demographic (white blue-collar workers) will never visit. This is the same imagery that was used, for example, in the dystopic thriller Repo Men as their "virtual vacation paradise."

Is it effective? We don't know yet.

A Romney Pollster speaks out to assure Republicans the ads are not gaining traction and Rasmussen holds that there has been little movement--Nate Silver seems to agree but notes that as of now, Team Romney is reacting defensively:
In recent days, however, Mr. Romney’s campaign has begun to behave like Bain Capital is more of a negative factor than a positive or even neutral one. Instead of pointing to successes like Staples — and pointing out that some of Mr. Obama’s claims about the outsourcing that has allegedly occurred at some other Bain investments is factually dubious — they have instead begun to behave as though Bain Capital’s track record is nothing to be proud of.
On the other hand, Andrew Sullivan looks at some trend-reporting in the two uber-key swing states of Florida and Ohio (plus Virginia):
Screen shot 2012-07-16 at 10.14.30 AM
Ohio Over a Year

Screen shot 2012-07-16 at 10.40.09 AM
Ohio Last Month

These make at least a case that things are not moving in the direction Romney would want.

Whether or not Team Romney is "defensive" may well be a matter of opinion--but their return-fire ad was just pulled from YouTube for legal reasons around the song-rights (it has Obama singing Al Green ... perfectly on key).

What Do I Think?
I'm down with the theory that the problem here is not so much that "the ads are devastating" but rather that there are two specific problems for Romney here. The first is that he's not an especially good singer and the implied mockery of the ad--the inherent goofiness of him singing the song with a sign that looks like it's from a kid's birthday party in the audience--is a direct hit in the presidential gravitas. This is the sort of thing that, maybe, stuck with Dukakis and the tank:
Not a winner

The second problem is that it plays into a narrative with the base that Romney, although willing to trash and thrash is Republican rivals will play like a school-boy in the general:
The strategic decision by the Romney campaign not to define him personally—not to inoculate him from inevitable attacks—seems a perverse one. Given his campaign’s ample financial resources, the decision not to run biographical or testimonial ads, in effect to do nothing to establish him as a three-dimensional person, has left him open to the inevitable attacks for his work at Bain Capital, on outsourcing, and on his investments. It’s all rather inexplicable.
And here:
What’s incredible is that the attacks are coming on these questions. This was Romney’s chosen narrative—that he has special business skills, expertise, and acumen. So it is odd that he and his team seem so flat-footed. Stranger still is that this is not his junior varsity season. He already had several clashes on this exact turf with his Republican opponents in the primaries. That was supposed to make him all the more ready for this highly predictable attack.
So I think this ad combined with its context / climate can be damaging in ways the specific allegations are not. I want to close with a brief discussion that the ad is dishonest. The Bain attacks have certainly been called so by fact-checking organizations (which Republicans are usually dubious of). I agree that the major thrust: that "Romney outsourced" is misleading as he was on a leave of absence when most of this or all of it occurred--however, I think this Hot Air article does a good job of making it clear why some people find this relevant:

Those siding with the President must lay claim to the following:
  • A person who is working full time on another project, is on a leave of absence, and has turned over all day to day management of operations to a group of former associates is the personal architect of whatever strategies are put in place by that firm.
It’s the most common defense we’ve seen and there’s some logic in there which is pretty hard to argue with when you put it that way. But before you get too happy about it, I also noted that Mitt’s defenders were going to have to go out in the public square and defend this doozy:
  • The President, CEO and sole shareholder of record at a large corporation bears no responsibility for the actions of that company.

This is a good comparison: Both arguments have certain problems--especially as each side will hypocritically try to reverse the positions when it is expedient (Obama holds Bush responsible for the economy ... still).

I don't grade ads based on how much I like the message or how true it is--the grade is on how effective a political weapon it is. In this case, "Firms" is an exemplar model of efficiency. It is bare-bones. It is almost spare in its use of manipulation. It is confident: it needs no voice over--no narration. It is clear and powerful: it paints Romney as a hypocrite and mocks him as clueless at the same time. It powerfully groups its allegations in threes (Mexico, China, India and Switzerland, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands). In short, it uses its construction expertly.

Rating: A

EDITED TO ADD: If you want to see a hilarious Mitt-Romney-Sings Saturday Night Live parody, click here.

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