Why is it that a Republican campaign filled with blunders, chaos, gimmicks, an out-of-touch candidate, scandals, and lies -- succeeds? Believe it or not, the answer is probably not the RNC convention or John McCain's vice presidential candidate or any of the tabloid nonsense that has taken over the media's collective brain since last week. The answer just might be found in a political ad -- from 1984.
In that campaign, Reagan ran a now infamous ad called "Prouder, Stronger, Better" in which he took credit for all the economic 'success' his administration had created in the country. The ad was an outright lie. Reagan's 'trickle down' policies had created unprecedented disparities in wealth, a huge rise in severe poverty, and a rise in grotesque wealth. As a result, the country was in the midst of a cocaine epidemic, a spike in the divorce rate, rising crime, declining health, a jump in hate crimes, corroding schools, decaying public works. 4 years of 'Reaganomics' had started the country on the path to economic collapse. Reagan described everything as the exact opposite of what it was -- and it worked.
Why? Was it because Americans are 'stupid'? No. Was it because the media did not call out Reagan on his 'lies'? Maybe, but probably not. The main reason the 1984 Reagan ad worked was because it set a big story -- and that big story is still with us, today.
Here is the transcript of that old ad -- see if you can spot the big story:
It's morning again in America.
Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country's history.
With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years.
This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future.
It's morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better.
Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago? (link)
What's the big story: The American Dream -- a dream of a perfect dewy morning in an idealized Anywhere, USA.
In that place, kids go to school on perfect yellow buses, boys and girls get married, families buy houses, we have kids, we move furniture, old people have gardens and are happy and healthy, boats sail down the river, sprinklers flutter on the lawn. Americans love that story. We all love it. We want it to be true, we just disagree with whether or not it is true and for whom at any given time, and the best way for it to become true for more people. Ahh...boats.
I once heard legendary ad man Bill Hillsman explain why that ad worked. After seeing it, Hillsman said, Americans everywhere would get a warm, familiar, and comforting feeling -- the kind of like the feeling that small babies get after they've just wet their diaper. It was a feeling that lasted for only a minute, and when it was over, you wanted it to happen again.
It was a funny description, but it was spot on. Hillsman's point was simple. Sure the ad lied, but it was the lies that made it work -- and it was not the 'truth' that could have beat it. What made that ad work was the way it made Americans see and feel something 'familiar,' 'comfortable,' 'warm.'
Here is the actual video of the ad -- as you watch it, think about Hillsman's point:
For me, the key moment happens about 15 seconds in to the ad, as the narrator says, "nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years." First, we see an image of a man holding the front end of a rolled up carpet, then we see a young boy holding the back end -- his son. We are watching them through the trees, over a white picket fence. We see them as if they are our neighbors. In the background, beyond the next white picket fence, an elderly man walks in the opposite direction wearing a white cap and a blue sweater. The frame expands to include the mother, now, walking behind the son and carrying her tote bag. Then a young girl skips into the scene behind the mom. She's carrying something -- her Teddy Bear, a doll, a book. 'Hey, wait for me! I want to help!' The whole scene lasts 5 seconds., but we already know that families entire life before we even see it. They are the model American family. We are the neighbor looking on. We aspire to be them. We envy them. We embrace them. We resent them. They are the beginning of America. They are the end of America. They are the source of our happiness. They are the source of our frustrations. We embrace them. We reject them. We love them. We hate them. We know them. We -- understand.
To really see what that ad does, we need to realize that from that point forward the election of 1984 was not so much about votes looking at Ronald Reagan or Walter Mondale. It was about each person looking at an idealized image of the perfect nuclear family, surrounded by a white fence, in a state of perfect bliss while doing the most mundane and ordinary things -- and it was about which party they thought about when those feelings came over them.
That 1984 ad was so effective that I suspect it is the real reason why Barack Obama has not been able to pull ahead of John McCain in the polls. There are still millions of Americans fixated on that ad -- millions of voters who, when they look at the 2008 Presidential election, do not see John McCain or Barack Obama or Joe Biden or Sarah Palin. They see the white picket fence, the old man in the blue sweater, the perfect lawn, the blissful little girl skipping along.
The big story in that 1984 ad was so effective at defining how the Republican Party makes people feel in Presidential elections, that a great number of Americans are going to make their decision in this election -- a decision about the future of this country -- based on that old feeling. Unless, of course, they are given an alternative big story, and a new opportunity to feel something more compelling.
What is that alternative? Well, that is for Barack Obama to decide. John McCain has already shown that he has nothing more to offer than what the Republicans already gave us in 1984. For an alternative to 'Morning Again,' the ball is in Obama's court.
One place to start in terms of building that alternative might be a speech that I often read whenever I am trying to think myself out of right-wing framing: FDR's First Inaugural Address (1933). It is a great speech to read, no doubt. But what I love about it is how it makes me feel. It makes my heart race. I keep a copy of the speech on my iPod and sometimes listen to it while riding the subway. Whenever I get to section below, my heart swells, I sit up straighter, and I get an incredible desire to stand up and shout in agreement:
The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.
Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.
Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now. (link)
Yes!!! What Americans want to hear -- what we need to hear -- from Obama in this election is not the details of policy or the familiar rhetoric of 'issues.' All that is available on the campaign website in painstaking detail. The question to answer to get started is not, 'What are the issues?' but 'What is happiness?' and 'How do we get there -- again?' We want to hear the big story of what 'happiness' means in America. That is not just any big story -- it is the American way of explaining who we are and how we should get there.
Despite all the rhetorical highs that have filled the 2008 election up to this point, the election is now entering the 'end game' where the candidate who manages to define the big story will win. So far, neither candidate is stepping up to do that, but the Republicans of yore--way back in the olden times of the mid-1980s--did such a powerful job that their work is still helping their candidate. Either Barack Obama will offer an alternative to the Republican's 'Morning Again,' big story, or the election will remain stuck in 1984.
If that happens, John McCain will likely win. The feeling we will get if that happens will be familiar, but it will not be warm and comfortable.
Crossposted from Frameshop.