Smoking at the Olive Garden: Herman Cain’s Unorthodox Ad
Every once in awhile, a bit of public rhetoric comes along that’s so absolutely bizarro that it baffles even boss rhetoricians like us. Case in point, current Republican presidential frontrunner Herman Cain’s latest campaign ad.
The ad has gone totally viral in the past few days, with over a million views on YouTube as of press time. In the event that you haven’t seen it yet, the video begins with Mark Block, Cain’s campaign manager, standing outside what looks to be a midscale Italian chain restaurant spitting some drivel at the camera about “taking this country back” and “putting the ‘united’ back in United States.” Yawn. But then things get weird—Block takes a drag of a cigarette as some cheesy dance-pop song about America kicks in, then the ad cuts to a shot of Cain grinning like a creep.
It’s doubtlessly one of the weirdest political ads I’ve ever seen, in part because of the flagrant defiance of genre expectations. There are 3 features about it that strike me as particularly notable from that perspective:
- Mark Block himself. Who is this guy? Why does he have any authority to speak about why he believes in Herman Cain—especially because it’s kinda his job to do so as Cain’s campaign manager? In rhetoric 101 terms, Block doesn’t exactly have the ethos (in short, credibility due to the speaker’s identity and positioning) to tell us why we ought to support Herman Cain as a candidate. Block’s credibility as a spokesperson is hurt by his job—he says “America’s never seen a candidate like Herman Cain,” but that’s like the CEO of Ford telling you that you’ve never seen a car like the new Taurus. Still, Mark Block doesn’t really look all that “political.” He’s average-looking, mustached, and honestly almost frumpy. He’s a “regular guy,” despite his undoubtedly sizeable paycheck. Which brings me to my next point…
- Smoking. While we’ve got some precedent for presidents smoking (historical, fictional, and contemporary—Barack Obama smokes, but good luck finding an image of it that doesn’t look Photoshopped), it’s usually something done on the sly. It’s considered a liability almost. So why would the Cain campaign waste precious screen time on a shot of Block taking a lengthy drag of his cigarette? Beyond the fact that, despite what all those Truth ads say, smoking looks cool (if you disagree, watch Brad Pitt in “Fight Club”—a performance that is singlehandedly responsible for my own dalliances with the filthy habit), the best I can think of is that the Cain campaign is trying to appeal to some sort of weird Libertarian/Tea Party/late 90s Winston cigarette billboard with the catchphrase “at least I can still smoke in my own car” demographic. Perhaps this is their idea of what people who aren’t billionaire CEOs might like to see in a political ad.
- Same with the music—Lady Gaga is still pretty popular, right? And she’s popular because of cheesy dancey electro-pop, right? So maybe if we put cheesy dancy electro-pop in our ad and make it about America everyone will love it? Why not?
These features of the ad, as I’ve mentioned, defy the genre expectations of political ads to the point of near absurdity. But if we think that Cain is trying to frame himself as a Washington outsider in touch with “everyday people,” some of the absurdity makes a little sense. It also explains the “taking the country back” crapola that Block actually says. If that’s the intention, it still misses the mark somewhat; but even in so doing it’s successful in its own way—no matter what, it still highlights just how unorthodox of a candidate Cain is.
If you want to know more:
- My idea that maybe the Cain campaign is trying to appeal to “regular people” is kind of based on the idea of “strategies of condescension,” outlined by Pierre Bourdieu in Language and Symbolic Power. In short, strategies of condescension are when people in positions of authority deliberately and purposely use linguistic features of lower-status ways of speaking in order to appeal to the people who use that way of speaking all the time. Obviously, I’m extending the concept to matters of action (smoking) and taste (crappy dance-pop), but I think it’s fair.
- As I said, the notion of “ethos” is a pretty elementary one in rhetoric. If you’re interested, you can start with Aristotle. For some more contemporary applications, check out S. Michael Halloran’s “Aristotle’s Concept of Ethos, or If Not His, Someone Else’s” if you’re into composition studies. If you’re interested in rhetorical theory, you can check out Ethos: New Essays in Rhetorical and Critical Theory edited by James S. Baumlin and Tita French Baumlin. This is more Doug’s speed than my own, though—he even did an annotated bibliography on ethos when we were in coursework, so I encourage you to e-mail him day and night with any and all questions you may have. Not just about ethos but also about, you know, things in general.