(False) Mourning

I’ve been intrigued by the discussion on Wonkette and in Kathleen Parker’s latest column about “Mourning,” a reworking of the classic 1984 Ronald Reagan ad, “Better, Prouder, Stronger,” a.k.a. “Morning in America,” this time suggesting that Obama has sent the country into a national state of mourning over high taxes, unemployment, deficits, and (implicitly, at least) health care.  At first, I mistook it for a straightforward mashup along the lines of “Vote Different,” but it’s actually just a masterful emulation of the original, twisting it to imply that Obama has, in the space of less than two years, destroyed the Reaganite main street utopia celebrated in the original ad.

Like “Vote Different,” I’m fascinated by the rhetoric of the advertisement and what it might suggest about web-based political advertising. Perhaps the most notable feature of the advertisement is its uncanny resemblance to the Reagan ad, playing off of nostalgia for Reagan and the older forms of televisual political advertising associated with the ad, and in this regard it’s hard to deny the ad’s cleverness, its ability to use intertextual appeals to evoke a specific experience of American identity and culture.  But I have to wonder what audiences will feel included in that appeal.  Although some younger viewers may know the Reagan ad from their political science or media studies courses, it’s likely to be only vaguely familiar to most younger viewers.

The advertisement seems to work relatively well as an attempt to define the current climate of economic frustration by suggesting that Obama has reversed Reagan’s efforts to reduce government.  Over a shot of the Capitol, the folksy (but mildly ominous) narrator remarks that “the government is taking over choices we once made,” before dissolving to a shot of a flag at half-mast and then a funeral, turning a significant symbol of national identity into a vague threat.  Unlike the thriving main streets of the Reagan ad, we see shuttered buildings that indicate that Obama’s policies have “failed.”

The ad’s racial rhetoric is also striking: Shots of unemployed workers, one of them Latino, seem to imply, in part, that immigration is a root cause of the country’s economic problems.  During a closing shot sequence depicting a white, male child waving a flag, the voice-over calls for a “smaller, more caring government, one that remembers us,” with the word “us” superimposed between the flag and the boy’s face, inviting me to ask who is excluded from the “us” in that particular image.

I’ve concentrated primarily on the advertisement’s visual rhetoric primarily because “Mourning,” like “Better, Stronger, Faster,” seems to be working primarily at the emotional level, engaging with (and seeking to shape) a national “mood.”  But it’s worth noting that the advertisement obscures the fact that the debt described in the ad is primarily the result of the Bush tax cuts and spending.  And the ad also implies that the government is also taking “choices” away from the people, when in fact, Republicans have worked against certain kinds of choices, including the “choice” to marry the person you love, regardless of gender.

It’s worth noting that the ad was made  not by an individual, but by an organization called “Citizens for the Republic,” an organization that should not be read as representing a grassroots insurgency against Obama.  In fact, as Kathleen Parker acknowledges the ad was produced by Fred Davis, who also made the Carly Fiorina “Demon Sheep” ad, but I think that as online political advertising continues to evolve, the boundaries between inside and outside are going to become increasingly permeable.  I’m not convinced that the ad will work for all audiences.  As Parker suggests, the advertisement works well to define (or at least reflect) some aspects of the employment crisis, but what seems most endangered in the ad actually seems to be a Reaganite vision of America.

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