Bad ads are rarely an accident. Quite the contrary, sometimes the things most offensive are the very things most planned. Ask GoDaddy. Or perhaps Peter Hoekstra.
Hoekstra’s infamous Asian-bashing xenophobic Super Bowl ad went viral, receiving mention in The Atlantic, the New York Times, the New Yorker and countless other blogs (including those in China). A disaster. And now it’s pulled — a mercy death, surely. Still, it deserves an autopsy, in part because in examining the corpse, we we may be able to see something of the thinking of the Hoekstra campaign and its electoral strategy.
After all, this is a Michigan MBA, the former vice-president of marketing at Herman Miller, a smart guy. So just what was he thinking?
Her Lips say Finance but Her Eyes say Jobs
Advertising works on two levels: there is the direct cognitive message, charged with the main marketing points; then wrapping it are the associations created by allusions, the visuals, the manner of presentation. This latter makes another unspoken argument. When these two go together the effect can be can be quite powerful, as Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America ad demonstrates. The twin message paths also lure political advertisers to create ads with two messages, a nominal message and a “dog whistle” inside message created for some subset of the audience.
And the two message approach seems to be the approach of the Hoekstra ad.
On the face of it (and in subsequent ads, here) Hoekstra goes after Sen. Debbie Stabenow and her (profligate) spending, positioning Hoekstra as a fiscal conservative. This is actually boring and forgettable. The images, the emotional vehicle is something else again.
The “dog whistle” is about jobs.
For all the mocking tone of our debt to China, in Michigan the issue of the economy is less that of finance than of manufacturing. The story of the past decade is the near-death of domestic auto manufacturing, the loss of 800,000 jobs from GM alone; a story of shuttered factories, faltering communities, and nation-leading unemployment.
It goes to the gut.
And that seems to be what Hoekstra was looking to do: a two-fer. Nominally, this was going to be an ad about Debbie Stabenow and her (profligate) ways and positioning Hoekstra as a fiscal conservative. A good message for the managerial suburbs like those of eastern Kent County or Oakland County. Underneath, in visuals a different emotional message was going to be told, one aimed at the working class suburbs of Muskegon, Wyoming, Downriver or Macomb County.
In looking at the presentation of this appeal, we can see the subset Hoekstra was hoping to reach.
We’re in a rice paddy, in an obvious SE Asian landscape. (Rice has another association, that of cheap imports of the 70s, aka “rice burners.)” A young woman approaches us on her bicycle her hat. This is the fevered and exotic landscape of Viet Nam, emotional images of a defeat 40 years ago now bathed in a warm light of memory. All that is needed is a little Doors, and the mood would be right. This is the visual language of the Boomer audience.
The emotional argument traces the Boomer experience through three defeats: in Nam, they (East Asians) defeated us; in the rice burners of Toyota and Honda in the era of Carter and early Reagan, they defeated us (and we took it out on them); and now once again in our finance, the East Asians defeated us — and where were the Dems?
The primary audience for such an appeal, for those who for whom this imagery (and argument) carries weight will be the Boomers and their younger brothers. Working class, 45-75, and most definitely guys.
As bad as this narrative of defeat, it gets worse. We got beat by a girl. The butchered syntax is part of the argument. It’s Chinglish as diminutive, emphasizing her weakness. Her person makes the emotional argument: the Dems can’t protect our communities.
It’s a guy challenge to the viewer “what kind of wuss are you?” Are you going to let a girl beat you again? Sexist? You bet.
The sissy Dems didn’t stand up in Nam, the sissy Dems didn’t stand up when Toyota came — they even joined the other side, and now a woman in the Senate is doing it to us again.
In contrast to the Senator, Hoekstra is represented by one word: Not. It’s a strong word. Nominally it is about spending and fiscal prudence, something not supported by his record. The word however is something more, it is a line in the sand. Hoekstra is the kind of guy who can stand up, who can set things right.
Of course with a Boomer and male audience, complaints that the ads are racist would seem to only confirm ones blue collar world view. That in turn accounts for why Hoekstra’s campaign didn’t pay a lot of attention to the criticism at first, the real audience would see the commotion as a validation not a condemnation.
The Strategic Question
Beyond the train wreck aspect, does the appeal to the resentments of the white, Boomer working class work? And why make it?
Hoekstra makes the appeal in part because of his struggles in the gubernatorial primary in 2010. The primary results showed him lagging in the eastern side of the state; he was identified as a candidate of the social conservative west Michigan. So picking up the Boomer resentments would seem to be a way to establish credibility. And if we think of the strategy being shaped in late Fall, it makes a certain electoral sense; this is the same audience that Obama was having trouble with in October and November. (What a difference a few jobs reports make).
As to the content of the appeal, there is a stretch here. Can the financial crisis (and deficit spending) really be linked with an earlier anti-Asian resentment? The two are sufficiently dissimilar to let the message get lost (this is the real origin of the train wreck: the argument isn’t tight enough).
And there is a tone deafness at play as well. The anti-Asian animus, even the sexism seem to be older, more vital perhaps a decade earlier. This is what you get, when you go with a California ad guy (and he of “Demon Sheep” infamy). The questions about Nam and the Asians were addressed by another Boomer icon, Clint Eastwood, first in Gran Torino, and then at the Super Bowl in “Halftime.”
Hoekstra’s playing the populist, resentment card to an older, white male working class. This is Tea Party territory, and it makes sense against the white collar Clark Durant. But strategically, it is also a sign of weakness in the campaign, that he has yet to win this segment’s trust. Besides, while the appeal to resentment confirms certain class prejudices, it is insufficient to inspire let alone build a win.
And meantime, the Dems have got their opening, to play on the optimism of an industrial state on its way back. After all, it’s halftime.