The campaign for the future is underway. Ideologies are being carefully woven into compelling narratives, styled for their intended audiences, and delivered via television, web, and even movie theaters. Like Tom Cruise’s character in Minority Report, we’re swimming in messages designed to win our hearts and minds — or at least a moment of our distracted attention. Some are overt, others so subtle it’s easy to miss. Like politicians, these campaigners only tell you what they think you’re willing to hear — and that in turn tells us that while red-state America may have suffered a setback or two lately, the culture war rages on.
On the Left: “In an Absolut World,” the famous vodka brand’s new campaign, launched stateside in May. A series of print ads cast in the palette of the ’70s cultural revolution posit a better world: pregnant men, politicians whose noses sprout like Pinocchio. But the piece de la resistance, the virtual storming of the Bastille, is the TV ad titled “Protest.” The scene opens on a crowd of diverse, attractive protesters dressed in post-Grunge urban chic waving yellow flags and chanting at a phalanx of riot police. The air is tense; we’ve all seen the headlines — this could be a Paris suburb, or an Eastern European election.
Suddenly a projectile is launched from the masses, the sound fades, and in slo-mo a pillow sails straight into the police’s wall of plastic shields. In the stunned seconds following, a young man leaps the barricade and swings a pillow into one of the cops. It explodes in a cloud of feathers just as the effervescent refrain of Charles Trenet’s hit “Boum” begins to play. Now it’s a melee; catapults launch wads of pillows into the crowd, which swings gleefully at anything that moves. The air is filled with feathers floating in the sunshine as the screen closes on the campaign’s tagline.
“We invite consumers around the world to discuss current events and subjects that engage them,” says V&S Absolut Spirits President Ketil Erickson in a press release. “We want to inspire people to discuss and to discover the visionary within them.”
The ad is thought-provoking, perhaps even more so than the makers (TBWA/
Chiat Day) intended. The bouncy, optimistic melody of “Boum” fueled one of Trenet’s biggest hits. It also provided the soundtrack for the 1991 film Toto le Héros, in which a disadvantaged young boy fantasizes that his real life has been stolen by his next-door neighbor, a boy of the same age whose parents are wealthy — the fantasy becomes an obsession that fills his grown life with bitterness and missed opportunities until he devises a selfless, poetic solution.
A metaphor for liberal America, perhaps? I certainly feel like someone substituted an inept, war-mongering, spiritual miser for my real president. “In an Absolut World” suggests we’re ready to reclaim a more peaceful future.
On the Right: The new Hamburger Helper campaign, in which a montage of voiceovers narrates shots of Main-Street America home and hearth. The gist: A proud, Beefy-T-sporting family comes together around the dinner table, thanks to the magic in the box. But you’ve got to go to the website Myhometownhelper.com (where you can apply for grant money for things like “Lights for our town football field”) for the big picture: An American flag hangs over a small-town vignette starring a little white church. Unlike Absolut.com, there’s no acknowledgment that this is a sophisticated ad campaign that relies on a demographic’s self-image and national identity.
Perhaps we’re doomed to unending conflict between cosmopolitan yet idealistic urbanites and patriotic yet naïve suburbanites, but a new Zogby poll suggests there might be common ground around an ideal that neither Hamburger Helper nor Absolut finds sexy enough for a lure: poverty. The May poll, released this week, found that 58 percent of the respondents think poverty is “either the single most important priority facing the nation’s leaders or a top priority for Congress and the President.” Eighty percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “Most people are poor because their jobs don’t pay enough, they lack good health care and education, and things cost too much for them to save and move ahead,” while only 44 percent agreed that “Most people are poor because they make bad decisions in life.”
Not only do those results suggest that we shouldn’t have to march in the streets to get our politicians to address the root causes of poverty (and that Democratic candidate John Edwards, who took up economic disparity as a core issue after the 2004 elections, is perhaps the savviest campaigner this season), but that the so-called Reagan Revolution has finally lost the battle for our souls, red and blue alike.