McCain’s Obama Ad Launches New Advertising Genre

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. rpwagner August 1, 2008
  2. garyb August 2, 2008

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