Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Deconstructing the Smoking Cain Ad

by Libby Sternberg

First, the visuals and the sounds: The chiaroscuro contrast of shadow and light, the gray tones that suggest foreboding but also promise--one walks from shadow to light, after all--the wearied stare of our narrator into the camera as if to say, "We're all weary, aren't we?" as haunting yet upbeat music comprised of a simple few notes against a techno-beat begins to play....

It all combines to create an aura: something different is happening here, pay attention.

And so, we do.

Then he speaks. He tells us his name but so quickly that we must listen again or look it up. He makes us wonder--Is he an actor or a real person? Is he who he says he is?

This, of course, is the critical question in any political campaign: Is the candidate who he says he is? A stroke of genius to plant this visceral question early in the minds of the viewers as a subtext to what will come, thrumming in the background as steadily as that techno-beat in the simple, nonaccostive music that seems to whisper: I will not hurt you.

On to the script: Mark Block, our narrator, starts with history, his history: "Since....January..." he informs us, he's been Herman Cain's chief of staff. But there's a world in those ellipses, that small pause, as if he's storing up the wondrous things he wants to share, deciding at that very moment to tell the universe about this magical experience working on Mr. Cain's campaign.

He tells us this is a campaign "like nobody's ever seen" -- another touch of lightning-fast verisimilitude, joining the narrator to the common bonds of humanity, eschewing a more elegant construction ("Nobody has seen a campaign like this"), opting instead for the barroom banter of the working man, conjuring up images of a victory whoop and beer held high while football friends-of-the-moment share triumph looking together, communally at the high-def images on a megasized flatscreen TV. Any given Sunday, that construction says to us all, I am one of you, Herman Cain is one of you.

But we are fickle viewers, are we not, ready to turn away at the briefest glimpse of the Most Interesting Man in the World or to the compelling lure of the skillets blacksmith with his seductive "mmm," urging us to "smite" the pan of pasta, "smite them with the liquid gold until there can be no more smiting..."

I digress.

Our friend, our singular vox populi, continues with his simple declarations, the camera providing enough movement to keep us watching, moving here, there, placing our narrator to the left of the screen -- the left! another brilliant stroke signifying "come hither, ye discouraged and disappointed liberal-minded independents, Mr. Cain speaks to you, as well!"

And then, the coup de grace, the moment when Mr. Block--Block, how serendipitous a name, telegraphing ordinaryness, neighborliness, orderliness, simpleness, comfortableness, kindnessness--as the music surges, voices joining the chantlike melody, proclaiming "I am America"--at that moment, as a visual fermata over the word "America," Mr. Block becomes the rebel within us all--he inhales a cigarette!

Were we not a country born of rebellion, our inner Minute Men howl? Have we not all fought against the stifling forces of conformity and raged against the machine of even more conforming conformity, our hidden Don Drapers keen?

But there's more. He doesn't just inhale. In a puff of utter genius, he exhales as well, his eyes blazing with the message: "I won't back down. Neither should you. I am America." A universal message for that blue-collared fan. He's telling us with that nonchalant whiff, the smoke lazily blowing toward the screen, toward us, toward our very souls, toward the heart and soul of America itself: "Do not be afraid."

Then the obligatory image of the candidate appears. By now, we've been waiting and wondering--who does this mysterious, unpolished Everyman speak for? Let us see him. Let us judge for ourselves. Bring him to us so that we might judge him. Is he worthy?

His face at last, serious at first, but with a shine in his eyes that makes us want to like him. Should we like him? Should we give him a try? Has Mr. Block told us the truth "like nobody has seen" before, or was this yet one more slick charade, designed to keep us from seeing beyond the veil of predatory politics?

Sunshine cuts the chiaroscuro! Mr. Cain smiles, slow and easy, a smile that dispels the gray and brown tones of the ad (and also, one must hope, of Mr. Block's lungs), and we are left basking in the optimism and exuberant stolidity of this beguiling man.

But don't take my word for it. See for yourself:

I hope this analysis satisfies all those who have been searching for the ad's deeper meaning.

Perhaps this is a good place to mention that I'm a novelist and write romantic comedy, among other things.

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