Hold on to your hats — the “Hillary 1984″ campaign ad that has exploded on the political scene is just the beginning of a new generation of political advertising that will change the face of presidential campaigns, and quite possibly, affect their outcome.
This is not your father’s presidential campaign. Political insiders often speak knowingly and wistfully about certain campaign television spots that were made but never run, pulled at the last minute because they were “just too tough” and the candidate feared public reaction might boomerang against him. Former Sen. Bob Dole is the subject of two such well known stories. The first was his attack ad against then-Vice President George H.W. Bush on the eve of the 1988 New Hampshire primary. Titled “Tracks in the Snow,” the spot showed a wintry New England landscape with a man’s footprints in the deep snow being filled in and erased as the snow drifts, all the while a voice over on the soundtrack drones on about the various positions Bush held during his already long political life — the point of the ad being that he held many positions but didn’t leave a mark anywhere. It effectively cut into one of Bush’s main campaign themes that year – his experience. Anyone who’s seen it knows how subtly powerful that spot was, but Dole nixed it at the last minute as just too tough.
Likewise, in his 1996 campaign against President Bill Clinton, Dole again said “no” when his campaign media consultant created a series of spots taking on the President for his supposed lack of truthfulness (and this was well before Monica). In the ads, black and white photos of Clinton’s face dissolve into one another as a female vocalist sings about “little lies.” Again, the effect was subtle yet powerful, and again, Dole thought them too harsh.
I bring all this up because the Internet, which has already changed so much about the way we live, has entered yet another new phase, as to its impact on American politics. Any fan of politics who has not seen the “Hillary 1984” ad now circulating on YouTube.com should drop everything and call it up. The creation of an initially anonymous but recently identified genius (see below), the ad uses as its basis the old Apple computer ad from the 1984 Superbowl that introduced the coming of the personal computer. A roomful of drones stare straight ahead as “Big Brother,” displayed on a huge television screen, raves on.
In the new version of the spot, the figure of “Big Brother” is replaced with the visage of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton as she delivers a stump speech. Meanwhile a lone female runner sprints toward the screen, releasing a sledge hammer into the air at the last minute to shatter the screen, a wordless symbol of defiance in the face of totalitarianism. It fades to a screen with the words, “On January 14th, the Democratic primary will begin. And you’ll see why 2004 won’t be like 1984.” Finally, it fades to “BarackObama.com.” Only a little more than a minute in length, the spot subtly touches a nerve about the whole question of Hillary’s campaign and “inevitability.”
This is simply one of the most subversive ads ever produced in the history of modern American politics. The Obama campaign reportedly had nothing to do with its creation. (Again, see below for an update.) The Clinton camp has so far said nothing about it. But it is everywhere on the Internet and is being reported on by the nightly television newscasts as well as by the cable news networks. Like so much else on the Internet, the ad is “out there.” No one is paying to run it on prime time television. It cost nothing to produce other than its creator’s free time. But it has quickly slipped into the general consciousness, along with all the other images with which we’re bombarded daily on our computers.
Now think back to the 2006 campaign and remember how the Internet left its mark there. The mid-summer cell-phone camera footage of Virginia Sen. George Allen’s gaffe set in motion his slide in the polls and eventual defeat. Likewise, YouTube footage of Montana Sen. Conrad Burns falling asleep helped send him on his way as well. Then there was the “blogger” culture and their intrusion into several races, including the Connecticut Democratic Senate primary.
Make no mistake about it, in this election cycle, candidates will have to contend with a new generation of political advertising that is totally outside of their control. Since so much of what we see on the Internet is largely based on creative minds trying to outdo one another, we are in for an onslaught of untamed political ads between now and November 2008. There will be no campaign managers or strategists behind these messages, no one to say “no,” no one to think better of their potential impact. Like so much else on the Internet, this new crop of political advertising will simply exist, left to sink into our collective consciousness.
Welcome to politics 2008.
Editor’s note. After this article was written, the creator of the“Hillary 1984” spot was identified as a contract employee for the Obama campaign. The campaign is still denying any advance knowledge of or formal connection to the spot. Assuming that is true, and to some extent, even if it isn’t, this incident still indicates how Internet technology and creative minds can and will intrude on national politics from here on in.]
Political Observations of the Week:
“I don’t see how they live through another year-and-a-half with an Attorney General as wounded as he (Gonzales) is. We all know how it is going to end. The question is how long it drags on.”
Anonymous prominent Republican with close White House ties, on the U.S. Attorneys scandal.
“Democrats smell blood in the water, and (Gonzales’) resignation won’t stop them. And on our side, no one’s going to defend him. All we can do is warn Democrats against overreaching.”
Senior GOP Senate aide, on the subject of Gonzales’ fate.
“We have a crisis where there doesn’t need to be one, and now Democrats have an issue where they can open up the subpoena floodgates. Once these investigations start, there always ends up being a lot of messy collateral damage.”
Republican Congressional aide.