Glee-fully Dissecting Campaign Advertising (Television notes)

30 Sep

From the first televised debates and Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous (or infamous) “Daisy” ad (1964)  to today’s instant fact checking of commercials, conventions, and speeches, elections are ripe with moments that crystallize the media’s ability to shape national sentiment. While my savvy college students refuse to believe, often, that their opinions, tastes, and judgments are influenced by the media they consume, a study of election-period media–especially television ads and Internet fundraising and voter registration campaigns– quickly and effectively illustrates my point.

Film strip for DNC 1964 “Peace, Little Girl” ad, which The New York Times called “the most controversial television commercial of all times.” (c) Democratic National Committee

We often debate whether campaign-season media educate or influence, and we discuss the fine line that might be seen between the two. With this same question in mind, I’ve been interested in exploring the increasing number of “public service announcements” that seem to me to be embedded in comedic and dramatic television programming. This goes beyond cutting-edge television programs that tackle their day’s most crucial problems–at the crux of what I’ve been observing are storylines that seem designed to educate, in the same way that a product placement is designed to drive desire. It includes shows like Glee and Go On that have characters who are injured or killed in car accidents caused by texting, or a show like Two Broke Girls one of whose main characters is a the daughter of a Bernie Madoff-esque man. Two Broke Girls and Go On use the “issue” as character background. The subsequent ripples created by a texting accident or a father’s malfeasance go beyond the quick punch of a PSA; we are forced to face the consquences weekly as the characters wade through the aftermath.

It was with great interest, then that I watched “Makeover,” last week’s episode of Glee. In it, Brittany has decided to run for a second term as student body president (she is repeating senior year) and Blaine, her fellow glee club member stands in opposition. Brittany is blonde, bisexual, and, as one character puts it, “her brain lives in an alternate universe.” In any other school she’d seem like a fool. At WMHS, she’s a popular cheerleader and pretty much universally appreciated, if not loved. Blaine is gay, and is getting involved in everything in order to avoid thinking about the distance between himself and his boyfriend, who has graduated and moved to NYC.

Brittany asks Artie, a handi-capable,  glee club member, to be her vice presidential candidate. She may seem empty-headed, but Brittany is sharp enough to understand the power of partnering with someone who is different than she is, and whose strengths balance her weaknesses. Blaine counters by asking Sam to be his second. Sam, also a glee club member, is blonde and beautiful, straight as an arrow, and has worked as a stripper to support his impoverished family. He’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier (he accepts a challenge to debate Artie, then turns to Blaine and asks “What is a debate?”).

In the lead up to the debate, Sam and Brittany sing Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” as they are coached and made-over by their running mates.







This sequence felt to me like a time-lapse version of what happens to candidates in national and state elections. You can almost feel how Sarah Palin’s and Hillary Clinton’s fashion choices were scrutinized and tweaked during the 2008 election. You reconsider tie-color choices made by speakers at the RNC and DNC earlier this month. And, you realize that the candidates we see are, largely, molded and revised versions of who the candidate was prior to the campaign. Everything from attire to hair style to speech cadence and word choice are altered and coached by the time we see them.

The episode threw into relief, last week’s news about the hidden camera that caught Mr. Romney saying things I bet he now wishes he hadn’t said. It reminded me that Elizabeth Warren is being criticized for her choice of classes and her down-homey clothing style. And, it made me laugh this morning when I listened to interviews with the politicians who are standing in as Romney and Obama as the candidates prepare for next week’s presidential debate.

Ultimately, both Brittany and Sam “blow it.” When asked whether it is true that he had once worked in a strip club, Sam doesn’t embrace the truth and declare, “Yes, I did. My  dad had lost his job and we were going to get evicted from our apartment. My little sister was hungry. I did what I could to help my family.” Instead, he says “Yes,” then rips off his shirt and, to Blaine’s dismay, does a great strip tease.  Brittany declares that she’s the best candidate because she loves the school so much she wants to abolish weekends and summer so that no one ever has to leave.

But, Artie blows it, too, taking more than an hour to answer a simple question and outlining an 87-point declaration of what he would do for the student body. Blaine wins, but then tells Sam that he ran for the wrong reasons.

After the elections, it is Brittany and Sam who show us what we hope would be the sportsmanship of politics–Brittany congratulates Blaine sincerely. And, Sam points out to Blaine that his election as the “first gay guy” president, with a straight veep, shows how far the school has come. Sam observes that Kurt was the first gay person he’d known and though they’d been friends, Sam had never gotten the Bravo insights or the fashion style. Blaine, on the other hand, is someone Sam feels he can relate to and hang out with. He says that as a team, they show WMHS that everyone can be accepted for who they are.

There wasn’t quite a David E. Kelley or Aaron Sorkin moment–no character gave a pithy monologue espousing a particular political view. And it didn’t have the long-term impact and social view of a David Simon program. But, Glee, once again, gave its audience something to think about in this last 30+ days of the 2012 election. Our candidates are the sum of the ideas and convictions with which they began their careers, of course. But, over time they all bend to the party platform, even if it is more conservative or liberal than they truly are. They are influenced by their big fundraisers. And, they are primped and prepped by stylists and designers.

I find it interesting that the folks who support a candidate choose to forget the candidate’s earlier iterations. (First Lady Clinton supported bankruptcy law changes; Senator Clinton opposed them. Presidential Candidate George H. W. Bush was pro-choice; as Reagan’s vice presidential candidate he was pro-life). The makeovers are so complete, usually so seamless, that the old version is “deleted.” Glee shows a short cycle of changes–all superficial–and how difficult it is to maintain these alterations of ones core. It reminds us that a candidate is a construction–no longer his or her own man or woman, but a collage of their core beliefs and their stylists’ and handler’s directions. It’s all about winning the election.

I wonder if Glee‘s audience thought about the constructedness of our national candidates or the snarkiness of their local campaigns. Certainly if I were in a classroom this fall, I would be talking about Elizabeth Warren’s clothing and how important it was for Sam to tell Blaine to lose the bow tie (AMEN!). I’d be talking about rhetoric, ticket balancing, and reaching out across differences. And, I would have a whole lot of fun mixing Glee‘s “Makeover” into my discussion of campaign media.

*p.s. Check out tonight’s The Good Wife, wherein a campaign manager attempts to shape a message to answer the opponent’s commercials, but the candidate’s wife is playing.


2 Responses to “Glee-fully Dissecting Campaign Advertising (Television notes)”

  1. Brandon Isaacson (@BrandonIsaacson) September 30, 2012 at 10:31 pm #

    Love this line: “There wasn’t quite a…Aaron Sorkin moment–no character gave a pithy monologue espousing a particular political view.”

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