I’m still trying to wrap my head around the new advertisement from Ted Cruz that parodies one of the most iconic scenes from Mike Judge’s Office Space as an attempt to mock Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. Of course, my initial observation is to feel defensive of one of my favorite film comedies: How can Ted Cruz appropriate something–much less like something–so incredibly fun and subversive? But given the timing of the ad–released days before the Republican and Democratic primaries in South Carolina–and the fact that the ad was approved by the Cruz campaign itself (and not one of the SuperPACs supporting him), it seems like a deliberate strategic move on his part.
First, it’s pretty clearly playing well with some members of the Republican base and Cruz’s base. Bashing Clinton, even during a primary election, continues to be a winning strategy for Republicans, and Cruz seems to imply here that he will be better equipped to do that than other members of his party. The advertisement does an effective job of linking the “fax machine” scene to Clinton seemingly destroying an email server that contains potentially top-secret emails. And although there are concerns about how this will play with older voters in South Carolina, it’s easy to forget that Office Space is nearly twenty years old (it came out in 1999), and fans of the film when it first came out may be in their late 40s or 50s. And while the ad features Cruz’s approval, he does not appear directly in the advertisement itself, so he is not directly, visually linked to something that might alienate older voters. Even so, political tribalism–as seen through Facebook and Twitter shares and retweets–frequently trumps questions of taste, and the message of a video or image macro, if it resonates politically, is often more important than potentially offensive meanings of the original text.
Still, Cruz has built his campaign around a subversive, anti-establishment discourse, one that frequently evokes popular culture, often in ways that defy the original or privileged meanings of those texts (note his performance of a key scene from The Princess Bride). I’m no fan of Cruz, but his campaign has carved out a clever advertising strategy that has embraced some of the lessons of how “pop politics” can help to define the perceptions of candidates in the public imagination.
Update: MSNBC mentioned that the ad was specifically scheduled to run during SNL, a time when viewers skew a little younger and are more likely to be familiar with the original film that is being parodies.