Hillary Clinton is running a traditional campaign for president, including a huge fundraising operation that enables her to run a ton of ads negatively framing her opponent Donald Trump. This is smart. But as the latest New York Times poll shows, voters pretty much can’t stand her. The biggest thing she has going for her is that she’s running against Trump, without whom she’d be seriously in trouble.
She has bought tens of millions of dollars of ad time to air an attack on Trump in Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, New Hampshire, Iowa, Florida, Nevada, and North Carolina. It will also air on national cable TV and in digital ads, the Washington Post reports. That paper describes the ad as this:
Hillary Clinton released her campaign’s newest attack ad against Donald Trump, a brutal, minute-long reprisal of some of his most controversial statements as seen through the eyes of children.
They make it sound so good! It’s not that good, even if it has high production values.
First, watch “Role Models“:
Here are three of the massive problems it has.
1. Uses Children, Poorly
Someone needs to tell ad makers that using children in political ads is not the blessing they think it is. It immediately posits the source of the ad as exploitive, and that goes double for attack ads in which the message is supposed to be that children shouldn’t be exposed to something or someone.
In this case, though, the problem with using children is that the kids don’t seem unfazed by the Trump statements so much as not even plugged into them. They just stare silently, without any response, at the glowing screen as Trump talks. They don’t understand the statements or their context enough to be even remotely harmed by them.
I have children in the age range of the ad, and frequently there will be adults talking about something or they’ll happen to see something I’d rather they didn’t on TV, and they just don’t even understand enough to be harmed by it. It’s kind of like how I was in my 30s before I realized all of the sexual subtext of “Grease.” (Feel free to mock me.)
It’s obvious the point of the ad is that Trump isn’t good as a role model, and I’d agree with that 100 percent. But the ad doesn’t do a good job of reinforcing that point visually or emotionally. The opposite, even.
2. Doesn’t Understand Trumpian Communications At All
More than a year into the Trump political phenomenon and, what, four decades into the Trump brand phenomenon, you really have to step up your game to fight it.
“Protect the little women” versions of this ad were run both by anti-Trump Republicans and a pro-Hillary Clinton SuperPAC. The Republican one was a deadly serious invocation of all the horrible things Trump had said about women. But most Americans are familiar with Trump’s style, and even if they don’t like it in an “I’m going to vote for that guy” kind of way, they don’t buy the overwrought Sally Struthers-style response to it either. You may not like him, but he’s entertaining. By definition, the media star is entertaining! He’s funny and he’s effective in his communications.
The Democratic version kind of overdid their response to this lack of humor in the Republican ad, however. It played jokey music in the background that seemed to suggest the negative comments were not a big deal.
With the “protect the little children” version we’ve now returned to, the previous problems come into play. It treats Trump comments in a deadly serious manner as the worst threat to children since Thalidomide, but does it set to swelling, inspiring music. I get the idea that Trump is a bad role model, but it has to be more eloquently argued than this ad does. For one thing, again, Trump has been thriving in the American news/entertainment industry for decades. A few social conservatives and other moralizers argued he was a threat to the public good prior to last year, yet they’re not just outliers but extreme outliers.
In the context of what we subject our children to on the Internet and television, Trump doesn’t even rank. In the context of our general social decline in morality, virtue, etiquette, etc., he wouldn’t even register a decade ago. I went to a death-embracing, disconcertingly depressive Louis C.K. show last night in DC and saw a few parents who had brought their children. The idea that they can handle irredeemably unfunny bits (he had an off night, granted) about killing babies, killing older relatives, and the horror of love and meaningless of life, but not Trump, is just silly.
Say what you want about the guy: if you’re not in the Democratic/media complex, you’re not going to argue that he magically became unacceptable to the American social order about a year ago. Presumably this ad is trying to target people outside that line of thinking. To them, you have to acknowledge somehow that he’s an effective communicator who has been a part of the American fabric for decades, but is not acceptable for this particular role. It’s trickier than it might seem to a liberal DC crowd, but if they’re going to fight him well, they better figure it out.
3. Hillary Is A Horrible Role Model
Perhaps deadliest is the idea that if Trump is a bad role model for our children, we should pick Hillary Clinton instead. Hillary Clinton! Of all people, Hillary Clinton. It’s an argument that immediately has the voter think, “Well, maybe Trump isn’t so bad.”
The New York Times reports today that “67 percent of voters say she is not honest and trustworthy.” That seems low, but you get the point. Contrasting Trump’s straight-talking crassness with her words at the end of the advertisement is ineffective in an environment where more than two out of every three people think Clinton is lying when she opens her mouth. At the end of the ad, to swelling music, she says, “Our children and grandchildren will look back at this time … and we need to make sure they can be proud of us.” Even if you are a voter who is thinking about voting for Clinton, you’re not going to be proud about it.
Americans have to choose between two candidates who have horribly low approval ratings. Driving those numbers down even further is a smart strategy — yay, negative campaigning! — but it has to be done in a way that doesn’t reinforce your own negatives.
If you don’t want children to have a president who is mean, do you want them to have a president who is even meaner, if less funny, and also makes horrible foreign policy decisions and has countless corruption problems?
One quick final note about the new ad. It bleeps out a word to make it appear as if Trump drops the F-bomb in public. He didn’t. He mouthed it, which is not better, really, but he didn’t say anything needing bleeping. There’s no reason to craft an ad that makes it easy to discredit in this manner, particularly since he’s dropped the F-bomb so much elsewhere. Not that most Americans seem to care about the use of such language in any case, sadly.