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The Rick Santorum Theater Presents: “Obamaville,” the Story of a Nuclear Iran, Out-of-Control Gas Prices and Desperate Grannies

March 28, 2012

This week the Santorum campaign released a real gem of an attack ad, offering us a chance to reflect on our own attack ad consumption and proving once and for all that Santorum’s campaign advisers have indeed read The Hunger Games.

How should we deal with (think of, feel about, respond to, etc.) political attack ads? For rhetoricians, this is a perennial question that nags at us during presidential and midterm elections. And, if the Republican primary is any example, we are going to see some serious—and seriously nutty—ads during the 2012 presidential campaign. The ads are coming, but what will we do with them once they’re here? I offer two very different ways of “seeing” these ads, and encourage you to decide for yourself.

Below is the ad itself, which was released only on the Web, but has nonetheless attracted commentary from several media outlets. The end narration promises a series of videos, coming soon to Santorum’s website:

There’s something nakedly awful about this ad and political attack ads in general. Maybe it’s the visual elements that make the ads seem absurd and cruel on a level the average stump speech can’t manage. Perhaps the distance between attack ads and a candidate’s actual mouth that makes it easier to say (and visualize) disturbing things.

This ad is chock-a-block with unsettling images. The most disturbing has to be the split second when the ad replaces Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s face with an image of Obama, right as the narrator utters the phrase, “sworn American enemy.” This subliminal association between Obama and Ahmadinejad is particularly skeevy, but there’s plenty of other dark stuff in there, too. There’s a man with a gas pump held to his head in the style of a man holding a revolver before committing suicide. And there’s your standard apocalyptic fear mongering: candles being snuffed out, worried farmers, children sitting on dusty benches below fading photos, crows aplenty, “closing down” signs, empty hospital beds and menacingly underlit hospital corridors, Wall Street bankers clinking glasses, termination notices, a woman inexplicably shushing us, and an abandoned shoe.

This is typical attack ad fare, and it reminds me of our coverage of an ad Sarah Palin released after the 2010 midterm elections. It’s a kind of argument by association: put bad things in the same video as a candidate, and viewers will infer a causal relationship between electing that candidate and those bad things happening or having already happened, whether or not the candidate in question has any real control over those events. The relationship works in reverse: put a candidate and positive warm and fuzzy images together and a positive association will form, although that wouldn’t really be an attack ad, would it?

Public intellectuals, rhetoricians among them, have responded to these ads in smart, constructive ways. I’m thinking in particular of the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s project,, a non-partisan effort to combat outright falsehoods and other misleading statements in political discourse through, you guessed it, fact-checking. It’s worth noting that the work of Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who is the director of the Annenberg Center, has been a huge inspiration for this blog.

Tirelessly pointing out falsehoods is a noble response to mudslinging and, frankly, I’m glad that there’s someone out there other than me fact-checking these ads with what I hope is a large staff of tireless research assistants. But I want to propose a different, complementary response, one that I personally practice. I look at these ads as a grotesque—but nonetheless entertaining and occasionally hilarious—form of theater. I look away from the ads’ content and toward their form. They are so pathologically sincere in their fear-mongering that I am unable to keep from laughing. It’s hard to get fussed about how deceptive these ads can be when you really look at their absurdity.

Some would call my stance an ironic distance, but I prefer to think of it as appreciating these ads in the same way that I appreciate drag and camp: art forms that revel in the absurd. This tendency may be a result of my exposure to gay culture. Andrew Sullivan best explains the connection between gay culture and camp when he argues that gay people have a hard-won “ability to see agony and enjoy its form while ignoring its content, the ability to watch emotional trauma and not see its essence but its appearance.” He calls it the “aestheticization of pain,” but one can easily imagine the aestheticization of mudslinging, too.

If this all sounds strange to you, let me put it in another way. I think fact-checking attack ads is important and I’m eternally glad that someone is out there doing it (really, they should be getting medals). But, when the attack ad season heads into full swing, it might be worthwhile to see the ads as an absurd art form in-and-of-themselves and enjoy them on an aesthetic, humorous level.

The danger is, of course, that one could take my perspective too far and ignore the deceptive, destructive nature of the ads as well as the very real possibility that the ads are poisoning our political discourse. But really, what better way to combat something than to see it as ridiculous?

If you want to know more:

  • The Andrew Sullivan quote is from his book, Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality, page 200.
  • For further reading on the issue of campaign advertising, I recommend Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s book, Everything You Think You Know About Politics… and Why You’re Wrong as a starting point.
  • The connection between the Obamaville ad and The Hunger Games came unbidden into my consciousness, although others have also drawn this comparison, too.
  • I might also have commented on the way the ad invokes the film preview genre, setting up Obamaville as a horror film. This is especially evident in the tagline that concludes the ad: “more than a town, a cautionary tale.”
  • The Silver Tongue has covered a number of unique political ads over the last few months. Check out Matt Zebrowski’s analysis of Herman Cain’s odd ad featuring his own campaign director smoking a cigarette (man, do I miss Herman Cain). The Santorum campaign has had some other fascinating ads, including a “Rombo” spot depicting Mitt Romney with a mud-slinging gun.
  • Here are some other historically significant or otherwise interesting ads. Feel free to add your own. Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad, George H.W. Bush’s “Revolving Prison Door” ad, the infamous anti-Rand Paul “Aqua Buddha” ad, and Hilary Clinton’s “3AM Phone Call” ad. These are just a few; I could go on and on and on.
  • I’ve just now realized that I’ve covered Santorum-related rhetoric for two entries running. And, both of my pieces on political videos were focused on Republican-produced videos. I’ll be sure to cover an Obama attack ad as soon as they become available. If you see a good one, feel free to suggest it.
8 Comments leave one →
  1. Linda Flower permalink
    March 28, 2012 1:36 pm

    Oddly enough,the ad also reminded me of Rachel Carson’s little apocalyptic narrative–No Birds Sing–at the start of Silent Spring. It caused a great stir–not scientific! Damaging to her credibility? But hugely effective at creating a desirable controversy.
    Another parallel–all of her events had happened, but not in one place. Clearly there are big differences in transparency and innuendo, but it always reminds me, how rhetoric can work to many ends.

    Doug, you leave me with a good question, too. How can we make this unmasking laughter also a public, rhetorical act? You have certainly made a good start.

    • Doug Cloud permalink*
      March 29, 2012 1:13 pm

      There’s something deeply haunting about the image of a “silent spring.” That turn of phrase alone is evidence of Carson’s rhetorical genius. I agree that Carson’s apocalyptic imagery is such a great counterexample here because it is a reminder of the diverse ends to which the rhetoric of innuendo can be put. I wonder if programs like The Colbert Report or The Daily Show have helped us at all to see the power of unmasking laughter? Or maybe they only help people with particular political views?

  2. March 31, 2012 12:16 pm

    I kind of hope Obama responds with a Santorumville ad. Although, really, I would just prefer there be a moratorium on political ads altogether. It’s just exhausting and ridiculous.

  3. Cesar Rodriguez permalink
    April 11, 2012 1:16 am

    These guys do get so into their campaigns that i don’t think they realize some of their tactics are over the line and quite absurd. Some of the things they do are things that the average american would find funny because we don’t take these things so serious. But it is a good strategy thou because they definitely get attention and clearly state their views.

  4. Matt Zebrowski permalink*
    April 11, 2012 12:24 pm

    Barack Obama hates his OWN COUNTRY SO MUCH that he makes kids hang out in a giant arena where they kill each other with gas pumps…

  5. Sarah Soto-Talavera permalink
    April 11, 2012 4:25 pm

    That ad is so ridiculous. Poor Santorum, he has to develop such absurd ads to get attention.


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