Marketing Communication Anthropology: Social Branding, Media Machines, Netnography The blog of Robert Kozinets, USC communication/marketing professor

August 1, 2008

McCain’s Obama Ad Launches New Advertising Genre

Filed under: Branding,Culture + Ad Jamming,Marketing News & Insights — Robert Kozinets @ 8:45 am

I had to post on this latest ad, already much blogged about, from John McCain’s new campaign team headed by ex-Bush campaigner Steve Schmidt. You’ve probably heard or seen the ad already, which uses images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton to try to suggest that Barack Obama is some kind of breezy, superficial, fame-seeking attention-starved dilettante, while its voiceover questions his ability to lead. Notice the celebrities not being used in the ad: admired people like Oprah Winfrey and Robert Redford, who actually support Barack Obama for President.

Here’s the ad on YouTube.

Here’s some interesting coverage of it in the LA Times on how it is playing in Hollywood.Anyways, amid all the other vast blogospheric coverage of the ad (see this Wired article on some of the response it has generated among bloggers; see this blog from the SF Gate on more responses), I was thinking that it actually starts a new kind of advertisement.

We already know a lot about celebrity endorser ads, where people employ celebrities so that some of their positive cultural meanings will “rub off” onto the product or brand. Michael Jordan advertising Eveready batteries is a good example. MJ really isn’t a credible source of information about batteries, as he is with shoes, but his image was so strong he sold batteries, perfume, and lots more. Grant McCracken wrote a classic article on the Celebrity Endorser which you can link to here.

But this new McCain-supported ad isn’t just negative advertising, as everyone is calling it. It is an anti-celebrity de-endorsement. A de-legitimizing strategy. A negative inference using celebrities (and the notion of fame itself, it seems) to appeal to a particular target. It uses celebrities (widely disliked ones) in order to discredit a brand or product (of course the political candidates are like brands or products; that’s just basic marketing at this point in marketing’s evolution).

This use of celebrity images for negative rather than positive impact seems to me to be new, and noteworthy. I wonder if anyone is going to study it culturally, or in a more controlled setting like a consumer lab.

I also think it’s wonderfully ironic and kind of silly that the McCain-ex-Bush camp is talking about how awful it is that Barack Obama is using “marketing” (that devilish technique, so avoided in Washington), to make himself “popular.” They even say that he is being marketed like soap or candy bars (horror of horrors–the technique is, <gulp>, generalizable; does that mean it could spread…um, everywhere?).

They are saying this as they are experimenting very deliberately with new marketing techniques. Like the anti-celebrity de-endorsement.

However, there are two problems with your plan, McCain marketers.

Number one: Good marketing is premised on the idea of segmentation and targeting. And number two, it’s premised on old, outdated assumption about controlling your message–it’s a different media world than it was four years ago, when blogging and the Internet weren’t such a force.

So when a message targeted at blue collar Americans spills over and gets wide attention among many who are not of that target, all sorts of interesting things can happen. It also changes things when the message gets transformed, altered, transmogrified in this amazingly wild terrain of the Internet and blogosphere. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing now.

So it’s not exactly good marketing, by any means. New, probably. Effective, unlikely.

I’d expect to see a boomerang effect on the negativity. People posting responses of their own. For example…something like ‘if you want your President to be a serious man, in charge of the issues, above the realm of popular culture, and “ready to lead,” then it may be worth revisiting this video of Senator McCain.’

And this catchy little consumer-generated ditty+video that it inspired.

Boom-boom-boom boom-boom-er-ang.

De-endorsement, indeed.


  1. I don’t know how is the “normal” campaign in US, but it’s nice to see how far people go to achieve their objective.

    They are not trying to promote their ideas, but they are trying to destroy the others’. At the end, no one has a true political agenda, because they loose more time analyzing and destroying the other, than constructing their own. You Bad, Me Good! The true polarization. Evil to this side, Saints to the other side,…

    This reminds me of something that my brother always warned me. In American movies the good guy is always good. He can do anything (kill, destroy, kill more, and destroy a little bit more), but his acts are always for good reasons. On the other hand, bad guys are always bad. There’s no human aspect on this. They cannot be good at one moment and bad at other. They are polarized. As we can see in the Axis of Evil “theory”. Me Good and will save the world, You Bad and will destroy the world.

    As he was a big fan of El Chavo del Ocho TV Show (, he always tried to discuss the human aspect of the characters. Sometimes they are bad, and do bad things. But in other episodes they are good, and they try to help the others. This show, as you can read at the wiki threat, was a big success in Brazil, and almost all Latin America countries. Is something that bounds latin people together. It’s a subject that can meet together Brazilians with Argentineans, with Chileans, Venezuelans, Mexicans, etc. Almost everyone from 18-35 knows what Chavo is about.

    And for the de-endorsement in Barack’s anti-ad, I have read here in Brazil that Paris Hilton hasn’t authorized the use of her image in the ad. 🙂

    and if this is true, it’s astonish me that Britney has authorized. What is she doing with her image? Ok, her image, and her meanings aren’t as good as before, but “de-endorsing” is way too much. 😉

    or is she trying to construct new meanings? Or she is happy with these meanings that they tried to attach to Obama?

    popular, famous, no intellect, just the outside that matters,….

    as we say here in Brazil: “You can say bad things of me, but at least you are talking about me!” Maybe she needs the media…

    Comment by rpwagner — August 1, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

  2. Here’s my concern about the McCain lowlife campaign…while there are those who will use the blogosphere to put their own twist on McCain’s banality, I’m more worried about the 100’s of 1000’s of Americans who don’t actually take time to think too deeply about the message. These are the ones who just notice the association between Obama and Hilton, and Obama and Spears, and think “oh, yeah, I don’t want a celebrity in the White House”. I agree that MdCain’s “anti-celebrity” ads are targeted, but the one’s who are the targets in this particular smear campaign tend to be those who don’t spend much time in the blogosphere, to put it politely.. Maybe I’m not giving enough credit to the American public, but I’ve seldom if ever been wrong when not under estimating their gullibility, ignorance, superficiality, and lack of critical thinking. The Lowest Common Denominator in America is a funny number–the low is low, and the common is sadly, pretty high.
    BTW, one quick response from the Daily Show about McCain’s low road was pretty damning–it seems that Mr. and Mrs. Hilton (proud parents of Paris) made the maximum personal donation allowable to the McCain Campaign. See the clip at:

    To move away from the internet dynamics of your blog, and to keep it simple (I am, after all, an American), I hope that Americans will do what they often do when the economy is shit–vote their pocketbook. If that happens, OBama will win.

    If more than just a dismal percentage of Gen X will actually vote instead of not voting because they feel apathetic about Obama and don’t like McCain, then Obama will win.

    So for me, simplicity and basic demographics matter in American presidential politics.

    Comment by garyb — August 2, 2008 @ 8:45 pm

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