Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Red Phone is Ringing

I kind of had a feeling that Texas was going to screw up Obama's chances for the presidential nomination, and I was both glad and sorry to see that I was right. That's Texas for you.

But I was surprised that Ohio got in on the action, too. I expect more out of good midwestern states. And Rhode Island? I don't really know what to say.

Last night as I was watching the primary returns, much was made about the Hillary Clinton "red phone" ad, and how effective it had been for her in these hotly contested states.

Here it is.

Talk about your uses of fear. The first thing that struck me is that there's no red phone in the ad. Prior to actually seeing it I thought for sure we'd get at least one shot of a red phone ringing in the middle of the night -- maybe in the Oval Office, with just a bit of moonlight coming in through the window. But alas, this was not to be.

Still, Clinton & Co. play on one of a parent's -- and in particular, a mother's -- worst fears. Something terrible has happened, and it's coming to get your kids.

Given the juiciness of its premise, I'm surprised the ad didn't play on that fear more explicitly. But this is politics, after all, and I suppose discretion is the better part of valor.

Instead, we get images of tots sleeping soundly in their beds, while a phone rings unanswered in the background and a solemn male voice explains that Hillary Clinton is experienced and knows the world's players and is ready, willing and able to pick up that phone and deal with whatever bad news it brings.

And then there she is -- wearing glasses, and obviously still hard at work putting together tomorrow's PowerPoint presentation to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Answering that red phone is just one more thing to do in her busy, presidential day. We can go back to sleep, secure in the knowledge that Hillary has answered the red phone and we'll never even have to know what that call was about.

Probably the most famous politics of fear ad is "Daisy," produced for Lyndon Banes Johnson's 1964 presidential race by what is now advertising agency DDB.

The first thing you'll notice is the spot's slow pace. But once that little girl has plucked every petal from her daisy and the scary military voice begins counting down, I'm hooked. And then come the nuclear blasts.

Looking at this objectively, "Red Phone" ought to be the more frightening spot. After all, it never shows us the fear it's addressing. It merely alludes to something awful. By keeping it unspoken, that awful something should be all the more enormous and terrifying to us. And yet.

In my opinion, "Daisy" kicks "Red Phone"'s ass, and I think it has everything to do with showing us our fear and not backing off from it.

"Red Phone" is just too gentle, too suggestive, too... nice in my book. I say if you're going to play the politics of fear, put all your money on it and go to town like the LBJ ad. Show us what we're afraid of us and don't placate us at the end.

But maybe it's just too early in 2008's presidential race for the equivalent of an all-stops-out nuclear explosion. Maybe in October. And probably from McCain.

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