But Wait! There’s More!

What we missed in assessing the Obama infomercial

Hi, I’m Troy McClure. You may remember me from such ads as “What If,” “Plan for Change,” and “Our Moment Is Now.”

Oh, wait. Oops. Not Troy. Barack. Starring, yesterday evening, in The Mother of All Infomercials.

Obama didn’t try to sell us Ginsu Knives or Magic Bullets or (alas) PedEggs. He was selling, rather, Hope and Change and A New Direction for America (for the low, low price of one vote!). Or so he said. Obama’s Big Ad was, say what else you will about it, inspirational. It was pacifying (Mika Brzezinski, on MSNBC this morning, called it “a visual scented candle”). It was “soothing” (Joe Scarborough). It was historic (such a thing hasn’t been attempted since Ross Perot pulled a similar stunt in 1992). It was informative. It was moving. It was bold. It was “extraordinary.” It was “pitch-perfect.” And it was incredibly, laughably sappy.

As in, there was Muzak involved.

This last one, however, was not was not enough to make the media question the ad. (Muzak? Seriously?) Instead, they lauded its narrative verve and high production values:

The program gave a new meaning to the word “infomercial” and, for that matter, to all notions of political advertising. Executed with high standards of cinematography, with help from the director of “An Inconvenient Truth,” Davis Guggenheim, the infomercial was part slickly produced reality program; part Lifetime biography; and part wonkish policy lecture with music that could have come from “The West Wing.” [Jim Rutenberg, The New York Times]

As a piece of political theater, the program was a low-key triumph, a message perfectly attuned to the cool side of the medium. [Robert Biano, USA Today]

Obama hopes will take him to the White House. He paid more than $4 million to blanket the prime-time airwaves with an ad that cast him as a bipartisan healer and a family man, a commonsense politician, and an American son with Kansas roots. The imagery of Obama with his head down and his back to the camera was Kennedy-esque, but the solemn symphonic strains invoked the heartland spirit of Reagan. [Carrie Burdoff-Brown, Politico]

The triumphal assessments are understandable enough; the ad buy was rather novel, after all, and it was, as many of the analyses noted, well-produced (for an infomercial, anyway). But still, every advertisement is a combination of inspiration and calculation, of art and artifice; Obama’s most recent is no exception. And in focusing on the former in their assessments of it, many in the media lost sight of the latter.

Assessments might have noted, for example, the fact that the ad exists in the first place because Obama broke his pledge to use public financing for his campaign in order to court the private cash that made this ad buy feasible in the first place. Few did so. Instead, we got a lot of message-siphoning and uncritical repetition of the advertisement’s claims. We got a lot of stenography; we got much less analysis.

The message-siphoning we’ve been seeing in analysis of the Obamamercial (and it’s not universal, it should be noted—the Los Angeles Times, for one example, provided a nice, critical look at the ad) emblematizes a larger problem with how the media report on political ads. There’s something of a cottage industry of political journalism that analyzes, in particular, the candidates’ advertisements—and, in even more particular, the attack ads.

Rarely does a day go by, during the height of campaign season, that some cable analyst doesn’t ponder the searing question that is “attack ads: how many are too many?” or some such. And in all the “analysis,” nets almost always play and replay the ads in question. They stamp a little “Political Ad” icon in the corner of the screen, sure, so audiences don’t confuse the ad with, you know, journalism. (I appreciate the lip service to journalistic divisions, and everything—but until the ominous-voiced Attack Ad Lady realizes her calling as a TV anchor, I think we can pretty safely assume the line is still clear.) But, before they/after they/in order to analyze the ads, they air them. Almost always in their entirety.

Or, rather, they air the ads that they deem worthy of analysis and debate. In other words, they air the ads that are, generally speaking, most controversial. So if you’re a campaign communications strategist, how do you ensure that your ad gets exposed among the media? You make it offensive or ridiculous or otherwise controversial. You make it, in other words, “good TV.” (“Hi, I’m Troy McClure. You may remember me from such ads as the really controversial ones.”) The term “free media” has expanded: no longer does it simply relate to journalists interviewing candidates and covering their events; it also relates to journalists unintentionally amplifying campaign messages in the name of “analysis.”

And what do we get in return for acting as candidates’ megaphones—and, for that matter, for incentivizing salaciousness? We basically write ourselves—or air ourselves, as it were—out of the equation.

Nowhere was this on more display than last night, when the analyses of the Obamamercial added precious little value. There’s a role for the press to play, of course, in parsing the candidates’ other direct-democracy appearances—the conventions and the debates—as there’s relatively more substance to discuss in each case. But noting a commercial’s production value and tone and narrative may be a fun little intellectual exercise for journalists; for everyone else, though, it’s pretty much a waste of time.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.