Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

That Hoekstra Dog Whistle

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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Failing Grade

Peter Hoekstra certainly launched a small to-do the other day with this ad released for the SuperBowl broadcast in Michigan.

One can see what the message goal was, that the Obama administration response to the economic crisis plunged us into hock to the Chinese. However, as the saying goes, it’s all in the execution. One doesn’t know whether to flunk the campaign for its political tone deafness, its failed advertising, or for flunking strategic thinking.

The politics, like too much of the current conservative thinking, is especially deaf (blind?) to the actual deeds. Move past 2009, and stances now condemned by Mr “Spend-it-Not” were apparently business as usual. Over his tenure Peter Hoekstra voted to add more than $5 trillion to the deficit — the dreaded free-spending Democrats, spending it now? A net increase of $800 billion (see  the chart from the Washington Post). The resulting deficits are simply the engine that drove the economy into the hands of  foreign investors. Peter “Spend-it-Not” Hoekstra? Alas, only if this isn’t the same Peter Hoekstra who once served in Congress.

One may also point out that the Senator hasn’t been sitting on her hands.

Stabenow, who’s running for a third term, has pushed for trade policies aimed at China that impose duties and penalties on countries that manipulate their currency and penalize companies that steal intellectual property from U.S. companies.

But let’s talk about the imagery used. Racist? Xenophobic? Those are the words of GOP consultant Nick De Leeuw.

“Stabenow has got to go. But shame on Pete Hoekstra for that appalling new advertisement,” De Leeuw wrote on his Facebook page Sunday morning. “Racism and xenophobia aren’t any way to get things done.”

As far as advertising goes, the image is further off. If it is about the Chinese (or East Asian) trade imbalance, it’s off target. We don’t have the trade imbalance because we spend too much on rice. Bluntly, had she been on an assembly line, or inside a factory it would have had more edge. (And there is the odd, Viet Nam vibe to the whole this something of a dog whistle to the old guard right.)

This all returns to the strategic judgement of the candidate himself. Sound advertising, particularly the high visibility, Super Bowl kind, needs to be on target all the way through. For a former vice president of marketing, this is embarrassing. Strategically one cannot say “I did this to raise visibility.” The racial question is not simply whether or not he dealt fairly with East Asians, but rather one of the future: will he deal fairly with other minorities. In today’s diverse  public, that is not something that should be risked.

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