Posts Tagged ‘Subtext’

Sigh. Damn the torpedos.

August 12, 2013

So technically I’m on vacation, but I had to mention this ad because it just seems so… oblivious.

Two things struck me about this ad:

1. How similar in tone and content it is to the Spitzer ad(s).  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

2. Anthony Weiner just doesn’t get it. An ad that ignores what’s happened to him only reinforces the idea that he doesn’t get it, that’s he’s arrrogrant. The subtext of this ad is everything he’s trying to avoid. Instead of confronting his personal issues like Spitzer did in his first ad, Weiner uses the same tone and message, but without similar results.

You can say you get it all you want (which is essentially what Weiner is doing), but if telling people  you get it shows them that you don’t get it, well which story do you think wins?

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Take the bull by the horns. Spitzer’s first ad

July 23, 2013

When I talk about confronting the elephant in the room, this is exactly what I mean. I when I said Weiner needed to own his mistakes, to incorporate his fall into the rationale for running again, this is what I mean. This ad grabs you right from the start, and it leads with the most important information in a direct way.

“When you dig yourself a whole you can either lie in the rest of your life or you can do something positive….” That’s a great line. Spitzer appears to be talking to an interviewer, but regardless of whether it was written for him or he came up with it, it’s good copy and it’s well delievered. In fact, this ad reminded me of what I like about Spitzer. As I said to a friend, he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s a son of a bitch who’s on my side. That’s really important in politics, but especially for a position like Comptroller, where,… well let’s face it nobody really knows what they’re supposed to do, but you know it’s about making sure things run the way they’re supposed to.

This ad also does a great job of telling a story. Who’s side is Spitzer on? Yours. Who’s he against? Wall Street, big banks, special interests. I think that works because it doesn’t confuse listing issues or accomplishments with telling a story. The subtext could easily be… Once upon a time there was a guy who went after wall street and took on the powerful interests. They didn’t like him very much. Then he made a mistake… Now, he’s risen from the grave to right that wrong, they still don’t like him very much. Good, fuck ’em.

I couldn’t tell you exactly what he says in that section, but what he says is less important than the sense it conveys. (Frankly, I’m not sure what the lesson here is. Is it just a well delivered line? Is it his conviction or past story that we’re familiar with?)

The spot loses me about 40 seconds in when he starts listing his accomplishments, “When I… blah… blah… blah…” Maybe it’s because it seems more about him than us? Or maybe it’s because it’s a little on the nose, a little too much 4 instead of 2+2.  I’d be alright with ending it with “Everyone deserves a fair shot.” Think the “… even me” not only should have been left unsaid, I think it weakens everything that came before it. Is it about him or us? Is he the fallen hero seeking selfless redemtion slaying demons? (They do a great job of tapping that archetype, btw) Or is he a self-absorbed egomaniac who can’t stand being our of the limelight?

I should also mention the visuals, the close up of the glasses, the empire state building shot, which are really good.

All in all, I think this is a really good spot, that has flaws, but also addresses the biggest hurdle Spitzer would face his own fall from grace.

If you can’t say something nice….

April 23, 2013

When things are going wrong on your campaign, you have two choices: (1) Try to defend or push back against the attacks, or (2) Change the subject and attack the shit out of our opponenents.

Fresh on charges of tresspassing on his ex-wife’s lawn (you know the one who he cheated on, telling aides he was going hiking on the Appalachian Trail, meanwhile flying to South America to be with his mistress) and this ad from the DCCC Mark Sanford has a choice:

Guess he’s going with door #2.

Watching the ads the ads back to back like this, I was struck by the subtilty and directness of the ad attacking Sanford.

The Sanford attack feels slightly desperate. I understand they hate unions in South Carolina, but I watched it a couple of times and the Boeing line threw me off (and yes, I know the general situation with Boeing, probably as much as the average voter).

So Sanford is trying to muddy the waters, hey look, she’s not your voice, I may be a lying cheater, but I’m going to be your voice. That’s the subtext, and frankly the only thing keeping a Democrat in this race his the fact of his lying and cheating. Throwing the Pelosi peice in there also feels odd, again I understand the rationale, but without the context it’s just can come across like mudslinging (which is what it actually is).

The message itself isn’t bad, but the vehicle for that message feels a little sloppy.

 

Everything you wanted to know about Subtext (but were too afraid to ask)

October 9, 2012

When I was at film school, I had a teacher Bill Reilly who taught me to understand the importance of subtext as a director. I grew up in an acting family, so I knew about communicating subtext to actors, as Boris might say, “Love is not ‘I love you,’ love is chicken.” But I had never thought about how the subtext of a scene might relate to how you filmed the scene. If two characters are talking, but the subtext is their separateness, that’s a different shot then if the subtext is their desire to be together. Bill taught me that, and it’s been among the most important lessons I took away from NYU.

When I first saw this ad, I wondered if it was some Onion satire, it was so sharp and funny, a parody of a political ad. It’s like a nested doll, a parody of an ad, that’s an ad itself, there’s a certain post revisionist meta brilliance to it (deconstruct that phrase for a moment, I have no idea what it means, but I like it). It’s an actual ad, running on cable not in battlegrounds, but still airing on TV’s across the nation.

I think at face value the ad is pretty funny and does a good job at subverting Romney. Not just the message of he’s getting tough on Sesame street, but not wall street, though that’s important. No, it somehow make Romney seem small and petty, Big Bird, really? Come on, don’t we have bigger issues to take on?

That’s the surface, but I think the true value of the ad is the subtext of its message. To me, this ad says Obama gets it. It’s funny and a bit whimsical, likable and clever. An ad like this makes Obama seem more real to me, because he’s tapping into the current meme of the election. It’s politics and its serious, but he’s not above being a little silly in the face of the ridiculous.

Maybe put another way, the ad is on-message, but it’s also on-emotion, it reflects what some voters are already thinking and amplifies it. That’s a powerful tool.

I don’t know if they intended that to be the subtext of the ad, again as Boris used to say, “your work is on the screen,” so whether they intended it or not, once it’s in there, that’s purposeful enough.

Subtext is a powerful tool, in my mind more powerful than the surface text, because it operates on the viewer, often unconsciously. This ad works on both levels, but the subtext “he gets it” can also translate to “he’s one of us.” To my mind that’s really more useful in this election than a clever hit on Romney and Wall Street.

 

The no rap, rap.

August 15, 2012

Back in college, there was a lot of talk about your “rap.” Which meant, the lines you used to pick up women, or at the very least, what you said to a woman when you started talking to her. There was always discussion and envy of the guy with the smooth rap, who always seemed so confident and sure of what to say, and who always seemed to get the girl in the end.

Then there’s this… the rap with no rap:

The phrase came up one night as my friends and I discussed our “raps.” I think I said something to the extent that I had no rap and therefore was at a disadvantage, another friend who knew me too well, countered that my rap was the no rap, rap.

Other than the “guy with two first name” I thought this ad was interesting (interesting as opposed to effective, which I’m not sure about). It’s not a bio or any other specifically message driven on it’s surface. But it’s subtext (like many ads) is really where the meat is.

This ad is the political equivalent of the no-rap rap. I hate political ads, so I’m going to talk about my seemingly random friends. But what Gregg is talking about is a way of life, a way of thinking, and his connection to it. I would guess he’s betting a lot of Indianians know guys like Hobo and his friends, and somehow, being a kind of regular guy is an advantage against his opponent former Washington, DC Congressman Mike Pence.

Political ads today are almost always about the smooth rap — the focus on message over everything else. Sometimes that smooth rap is effective, usually when it’s authentic, something it’s just aired with such repetition that it becomes true, and often it’s just a bloodbath with two candidates fighting it out with their smooth raps to see which one voters like the best.

An ad like this stands out, whether it stands out for the right reasons or not, I’m not sure, but it’s interesting… or maybe it’s just my appreciation for the rap with no rap.

Does interesting = Good?

June 15, 2012

I was just lamenting to a friend that it’s sometimes hard for me to blog because I feel like I’m saying the same things again, and again, and again. That’s because for the most part you see the same ads, again and again, and again. In my more down moments, I wonder if I have anything to add to what I’ve already said, and worry that it’s not enough to beat the drum, if you’re beating out the same rhythm (rhythm is a ridiculously hard word to spell by the way, I never get it right).

I cam across this ad in the Daily Kos’ election roundup, a pretty useful daily guide to election goings on, and a great way to see new ads. They have a pretty good sense of the subtext of ads, and said about this one:

“This ad from 25-year-old Republican Weston Wamp (notable only because his father, Zach Wamp, held this seat until a cycle ago) is just deeply… weird. I can’t summarize it at all—it’s a series of different images (John Wayne! moonshot! Bill Gates!) accompanied by a strange meditation on the meaning of freedom. I will say, though, that I was sure Wamp had hired some ridiculously deep-voiced announcer to narrate the ad. Instead, it turns out that the ridiculous deep voice is Wamp’s own. (He doesn’t sound that way when he’s not trying.) Overcompensating much?…:

It’s a little weird, and not really your standard political ad, and yet, there’s something about it I like. It puts a premium on emotion and theme over pure message and facts. I just finished reading Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failures, by Tim Harford. Harford talks about the need to experiment away from the harsh glare of success and failure, in fact he says explicitly that being able to experience in places where you can fail is critical to future successes. He calls these outposts Galapagos Islands — places outside the scrutiny of everyday business or the mainstream focus of action.

I thought a lot about the idea of Galapagos Islands in politics — the stakes are so high (win or go home) and so much money is spent, there’s not much room to experiment because the costs of failure are higher than almost any other industry save ones where life and death are actually on the line (Nuclear plants, airline pilots and the like). Shit, Coke can role out a whole new formula, turn on it’s heels and call it a mistake with little or no fallout, other than a cautionary tale. A politician can’t even change their opinion on an issue opening themselves up to a negative attack.

I’m getting a little off topic here, but the point is it’s hard to try out new things especially in political campaigns. Every candidate wants different, or so they say.  The various occasions they’re presented with different, the reaction is almost always the same, wow, that’s so different, can’t we do something you know more… (I wrote a post about this very fact some time back).

Back to this spot, it’s different, and sometimes that seems weird.  What I don’t know is if it’s authentic? Is the spot just spitting on the table (if I stood up and spit on the table in a meeting, you’d certainly remember it, but would it be the message I want to convey)? Look at those Pawlenty for President spots if you want to see spitting on the table in action. I don’t know if this spot fits people’s image of Wamp, is he seen as a daddy’s boy, and this spot seems strangely like he’s overcompensating (as Nir implies)? Why did they make his voice sound… so oddly deep? My guess after listening to him speak normally is that they put some kind of effect on it in post.  What will people think of that? Is he trying too hard (like Pawlenty) to be something he’s not?

I don’t know the answers to those questions.  But here’s the thing I do know, I actually find the spot kind of interesting, and think in this case the usually astute David Nir misses the mark.  There is something bigger going on here.  “We went to the moon and played Sinatra ’cause no one told us not to…” that line is odd, but also strangely compelling and memorable. Which is what I’d say about the spot.  I’m not willing to say it’s good, but it is interesting, and in a world filled with safe and normal, that’s a step in the right direction. Is it a failure? Well, if it is, then it’s a failure that moves us closer to a success, and in my book that’s something to be admired.

Four for Friday: The Subtle and the petty

March 30, 2012

Been traveling this week for work, so it’s been tough to post. Today is a hodgepodge of ads, I came across this week.

First up Chrysler’s followup to “Halftime in America”:

I thought the ad did a great job of re-framing the halftime in America message that started with Clint Eastwood at the Super Bowl. If that ad was a 50,000 ft view, this one is closer to ground level. It tells the story, without telling the story, if you know what I mean. I just read this list of writing tips from the great screenwriter Billy Wilder. The two rules that seem to apply here are:

5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.

And,

7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.

This ad is very subtle, it never reveals the subtext, and I think it’s better for it.

The next ad up was sent to me by a friend:

I like the tone of the ad, and I think it does a nifty job of making it’s political points without sounding (or looking) too political. The ad is well shot too, with lots of pretty pictures. It makes something that could have been dry interesting, so it scores points there too.

My only objection to the ad, is the whole “Your friend Ben” theme.  Maybe it’s how folks already see Cardin, but it feels a little forced. I guess it’s better than a more traditional, “that’s because Ben Cardin cares…” or “Ben Cardin is on our side…” line, but not sure I buy it, in an ad that I generally buy.

Alright, ad number three comes from the Republicans:

Don’t love this ad/video for a number of reasons:

1. Not sure how folks will feel about using audio from the Supreme Court. Usually the Supreme court is above politics, pulling in Lawyer’s arguments seems debasing somehow, but maybe that’s just me.

2. The quote feels lacking context. So, the lawyer had a brain fart, but does that make healthcare a tough sell? Not sure I get the connection? Maybe if we heard a question asking him to describe what the health care law does or some other reference, but right now it just seems like a guy who lost his train of thought.

3. Who cares? I mean, yes we ought to care about health care, but what I mean is, hitting Obama for health care now seems like hitting Clinton for having affairs, haven’t we played this out already?

Maybe as an ad that gets the base angry this works.  The fact that it only had 400 hits on youtube (and I’ve watched it twice), makes me think it’s pretty ineffective.

Finally, an ad that’s about as simple a repines as they come. In one of those petty (and dumb) political moves, opponents of Jose Hernandez are asking a judge to stop him from describing himself as an Astronaut. 

Hernandez answers quite eloquently in this one minute long video:

Is there a more clear example of show don’t tell? This response is a also a great example of political aikido. Whatever a judge decides, the fact that opponents are arguing he’s not an astronaut, this video response will cement the fact that he did indeed fly in space. At once a response like this makes the opponents seem small minded and Jose Hernandez never has to break message to do it, that sounds like a win in my book.

Dueling ads – The Republican Presidential Primary

February 17, 2012

In sports there’s something called a challenge trade — when two teams trade underperforming players at the same position.  Romney and Santorum are engaged in something of a challenge air war.  Romney err, Restore our Future is up attacking Santorum, trying to undermine Santorum’s conservative street cred.

The ad is pretty mediocre, basically a message delivery device without much creativity. But the point is to try and muddy the waters and subvert Santorum’s message that he’s the real conservative — would the “right” choice really vote <gasp> to raise the debt limit? If Romney’s not a man of the people, then neither is Santorum the “Ultimate washington insider.” If I was grading the ad, I would probably say it’s about a C or C+ if I was feeling generous. There’s nothing really wrong about it,but there’s nothing compelling or interesting.  Actually not sure why they include the Romney stuff, it’s not really catchy

Santorum on the other hand is running a pretty interesting ad with an interesting strategy behind it. It’s a gimmick ad, but the gimmick works because it reinforces the message. “Rombo” is on the lose shooting mud at Santorum.  It’s actually a pretty clever concept, and they certainly go all the way with it, down to an actor who looks like Romney.  I like the concept the execution is good, but not great, but I think the strategy behind it is just as clever.

Rombo also is subtlety subversive — Romney isn’t the tough conservative he plays on TV (Rambo), but some kind of phony “Rombo” shooting a mud in a white shirt and tie. It’s a slight jab, but  the subtext might be more effective at capturing the anti-Romney malaise that Republican primary voters are feeling than the text.

Santorum can’t compete with Romney’s cash advantage (I saw it as at least 3:1). This ad is trying to functionally dislocate Romney’s advantage — it’s not an unusual strategy, but well played in this case. The hope is to remind voters of Romney’s negatives every time you see a Romney ad attacking Santorum. While, I’m not a fan of the ultimatum approach at the end, I still think given the execution of the ad it could be effective in helping to blunt Romney’s advantage.

By wrapping the message around such an entertaining and off-beat concept, Santorum might be able to poison Romney’s negative ads.

The easy winner this round is Santorum.  The only question is can Santorum continue to move and out flank Romney.

A tale of two ads

June 15, 2010

Been a long time between posts, sorry.  Thought I’d make up for it looking at two ads today.  The ads are pretty different but both are thematically the same (after watching them you may think I’m crazy for saying that).  Both ads play upon voter anger at “broken” government.

The more traditional of the two ads.  Wonder why the guy is wearing a t-shirt?  Shhhhh…. don’t tell anyone but Charlie Baker was a CEO at a big time health insurance company.  This ad was kinda strange to me.  What’s the deal with basketball?  I don’t get it.  Again, I’m all for doing something different, but it just feels fake to me.

People hate CEO’s and politicians so we’ll put him in a t-shirt and show him playing basketball with his son.  People will love that!  He’s just like you, get it? Awesome.

I think Robert McKay in his arrogant but seminal book, “Story” said something like a baseball hat is not character — meaning just putting a character in a baseball cap does not tell you anything about the character’s character.  What the character does tells you something about who he (or she) is.  It’s about action, not what they’re wearing.

It seems to me like Baker is trying to run away who he is from and his story.  The guy went to Harvard, he was a CEO of a health insurance company, that’s the elephant in the room, better to embrace it and own your story, than let the other guys tell their story.

The ad is fine in terms of shots and the way what it is made, but it just feels phony.

This next ad goes in a different direction:

Well this is one way to go.  Not sure what’s in the water down in Alabama, but they sure are going for it down there.  So where to start?  On the positive side, I think it’s actually well filmed, I like the shaky cam, documentary feel.  I think the reveal is also nicely handled.

The ad is actually playing on the same anger at government as the Baker ad, though obviously going in a way different direction.  I think where the Bake ad feels phony this ad at least feels honest in its emotional center.  They’re definitely going high concept for political ads.

I can almost see the consultants in the room coming up with concept:

“We revolted over a tea tax for christsakes.”

“Hey, what if that was the ad…”

“No, no what if he was talking with Sam Adams, George Washington, telling them about what’s going on…”

High fives all around….

Look, I find this ad scary, and not intellectually honest, but I think that misses the point of it.  I do wonder who they’re aiming the ad at? If they get 100% of their base vote, do they get any of the independents you usually need to win a general election?  I mean come on, “Gather your armies?” Seems like a pretty radical message even for Alabama. [Ed Note: Seems Barber is in a Republican runoff, so this message is directed at his base.  I guess you have to win the election in front of you, but there is tacking to the right, and there is damn the torpedos full speed to the right. Reading his responses to questions about the ad, he’s also trying to play it coy which undermines the authenticity of the feeling the ad is designed to manipulate.]

My partner Dan loved the ad and talked about how honest it was.  I think it’s a little too honest.  There’s the text of an ad or campaign and the subtext.  This ad seems to confuse to the two (or maybe it is not a confusion, maybe it is deliberate).  All that anger and fear of government could be the subtext, but to be so on the nose with it feels a little like drinking from a fire hose.

I think when I looked at the Tim James ad (also from Alabama) I said if Tea Party and the radical right learned how to package their anger into a cooler more thoughtful package, they would be a dangerous force.  This ad tells me they still haven’t figured that out yet, which is good those of us who love this country.

It reminds me a little of the story of the Scorpion and the Frog.

Another theme is that the Tea Party is trying to own the symbolism of the American Revolution. Again, I feel like this ad is so on the nose in that attempt.

Marc Ambinder recently wrote an article titled, “Has the Tea Party done anything good for the GOP?”

The GOP hoped to channel all that anger into their party structure, but like the frog, they lost site of one key fact — the they are scorpions after all.

The King is dead…, Long Live the King.

November 6, 2009

Well the 2009 elections are over, and while I only focused a little of my attention on those ads, the passing of election day marks a low tide mark in the off-year.  I’ll continue to post at least once a week, more if I see things of interest that I want to pass along.

Still, with 2009 in the rear view mirror, the 2010 elections are now in our sights along with the health care fight, and the probably climate bill coming up at the end of the year, so there will be political ads out there to discuss.

Take for example this ad from embattled Governor of New York, David Patterson:

Patterson also has another ad running. What I like about both ads is that they don’t pussyfoot around with Patterson’s situation. He’s made mistakes, he’s been heavily criticized, he’s unpopular right now — you can ignore those problems, try to dance around them with your advertising or face them, head on.  I prefer the later approach, which is why I like these ads.

First of all in this ad, “Some Say,” I find Patterson appealing, surprisingly quietly confident and well spoken.  Maybe he conveys these qualities all the time, but in my limited expose to him, I’ve never thought of him as such, more of a walking train wreck.  I appreciate how he tries to turn his negative (people say he shouldn’t run for governor) into a strength — strength of character, strength of leadership.

In that way, it reminds of me of the Inhofe spot I posted about, “One man in America.”

Secondly, it seems honest.  He’s not defensive or aggressively pushing back, just talking to voters calmly, humbly, but also with a strength that’s appealing.

The visual style reinforces this message, not too flashy, simple clean, not too flashy.  There’s a subtle push in to him at the end, it brings the viewer closer to the subject.  Underscoring the tone of the spot, it doesn’t draw attention to itself, but it’s effective in reinforcing the emotional subtext of the spot: Patterson’s not flashy, he’s about the people, he’s appealing, he’s not trying to fool you but speaking plainly and honestly.

I wonder if Patterson’ blindness is a benefit in this situation.  He can’t read the spot off a prompter like most politicians would be forced to do.  He’s had to memorize it (so it seems), and I think because of that fact, he delivers the lines instead of repeats or reads them.  I’ll be interested to see if he can continue to deliver lines like this in future ads, but it’s obvious I was impressed with his performance (and make no mistake, any time a politician is talking into the camera it’s a performance, to quote Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…”)

The second spot is a narrator driven bio, but echoes the same themes, he’s made mistakes, he’s put the people first, strength of character, leadership.

With the echoes of Corzine’s loss in the Jersey governor’s race, I can’t help but wonder if he could have turned things around if he had taken a similar approach.  It’s bold to put a candidate with a negative approval rating in the front of your spot.  Think about those Dodd spots from this summer. The Senator barely appears in them.

I think the Dodd/Corzine approach adds to the siege mentality, it’s a losing frame of mind, a defensive approach, that tries to ignore the elephant in the room rather than make the elephant a positive (who wouldn’t want an elephant to clean up all the peanuts) or at least admit what everyone else knows (there’s an elephant here, I know I brought it into this room, and I’m going to do everything I can to get it out — anyone have a mouse).

Politics like sports can’t be played not to lose, you always have to play to win.  You never worry about how many outs you need, only how many you have.  Don’t worry about your negatives, worry how to turn those negatives into positives.

Patterson is obviously playing to win here. And while he has hurdles to overcome — bad economy, a potential popular primary opponent (Cuomo), a tough economy and dysfunctional legislature, he’s off to a good start with these ads.

If I was giving this ad a grade it would probably be a B+/A-.  A solid A for messaging (form) and a B for function, it’s not innovative, but its professional and effective.


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