A Tale of Two Ads

Oh, what a difference four short years can make.

It was around this time back in the dark days of ’08 that we found our country in the grip of strange mania, an almost religious enthusiasm for the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. In the mainstream press, throughout the popular culture, even at our favorite tavern, Obama was explicitly hailed as a messianic figure, an avatar that would lead the nation into a new era of hope and change. Even the schoolchildren were singing the praises of the secular savior.

That ad with the singing schoolchildren was especially disquieting. There was a queasy Kim Jon-Il feel about the spectacle of a choir of adorably toothy urchins serenading the dear leader with hymns of allegiance, their eyes filled with adoration as they gazed into a glorious future with the harmonized surety that “Obama’s gonna lead us.”

We were reminded of that creepy bit of political propaganda by the latest advertisement advanced on behalf of Obama’s campaign. Dubbed “A Message From the Children” and produced by one of the fancy-schmantzy Madison Avenue ad firms, the spot features a new batch of cute youngsters — the old ones presumably being too pubescent, acne-riddled, and wised-up by now — but with same appeal to the absolute moral authority of the not-yet-grown-up.

The earlier ad was filmed in warm, soothing, campaign-themed color, while the latest one is in a self-consciously serious black-and-white, and the difference in the two messages is similarly stark. There’s no mention at all of Barack Obama in the latest ad, much less any effort to extol his glory, but rather a dystopian vision of what life would be like if the other guy got elected. The children sing of a future in which strip mines abound, homosexuals are subject to draconian treatments, sick people are left to die, oil spills overrun the oceans, endless wars are fought, polar bears are eliminated, “Big Bird is sacked,” and there is “lots of Chinese stuff.” Except for the parts about Big Bird having to find a real job and the abundance of inexpensive imports it all sounds quite horrible, and the juvenile cast seems convincingly appalled about it as they sing to their Romney-leaning elders that “We’re kinda blaming you.”

The young’uns have the same chin-up air of moral superiority as their parents, and even seem to have somehow replicated the smug soprano self-righteousness of the old folk boom balladeers, so it will likely have some motivating effect on the aging segment of the country that remains committed to Obama’s presidency. Less clear is the effect it might have on the rest of the electorate, which might well recognize that the song’s caricature of the Republicans is utter nonsense and note the sharp contract with the earlier optimism of Obama’s political career. Gone is the utopian promise of the last campaign, replaced by an equally overstated pessimism about the alternative.

Such children’s horror stories might even work, at least well enough to eke out a victory next week, but somehow they don’t seem so frighteningly dangerous as the earlier juvenilia. Obama has devolved from a mass hysteria intent on the fundamental transformation of America into a niche-marketed advertising campaign to hang on to political power. Something so small, petty, and implausible isn’t likely to make a lasting difference in the character of nation, and the resulting gridlock and polarization might even give those poor kids a chance to figure things out.

— Bud Norman