Right Venue, Wrong Message

At a time when the country desperately needed the boost, the Olympics have turned out to be a regular festival of uplift. Against a backdrop of what was beginning to look like unrelentingly grim news about another war, the sliding economy and rising gas prices, Michael Phelps leapt into the pool to become a national hero. He’s someone we can all agree on: uniquely American, focused, competitive, almost superhuman, yet still accessibly imperfect.

And the advertisers, for the most part, have kept pace with the thrill of the Games. That is, except for Lenovo. The spots, like Coke’s “Unity,” have been big, emotional and even quasi-spiritual. Nike’s commercial, using old footage of Marvin Gaye singing a hauntingly slow National Anthem against cuts of the superstar NBA-ers coming together to play for Team USA, is goose-bump-inducing great. Coke’s little colorful animated figures building their own bird’s nest are inspired. Chevy gives us hope by introducing the car of the future.

And Visa knocked it out of the park (to mix a sports metaphor) in delivering a “Congratulations, Michael” spot seemingly overnight. (The script was presciently written and voiced back in March and April, since Morgan Freeman is, now, post-Nissan wreck, all shook up.) Within this high-toned mix, what turns out to be a mini-Olympics for advertisers, both presidential contenders have also bought time.

Given the context, the largely negative political work is downright depressing. Who wants to leave the swimming pool or the beach volleyball scene (each complete with those 6-foot-4-inch androids of perfection) to get right back to talking smack on taxes, the economy and oil?

Yes, it’s a critical point in the election, and certainly the Olympics offers a uniquely diverse (and huge) audience. But like the Super Bowl, it seems to me that using the venue to run upsetting and negative messages is a waste. And even when the spots are not negative (e.g., an Obama ad that comes off as “Morning in America” Lite, that talks about “the hands that built roofs can also build solar panels”), the low-budget look of the spots gets lost against the highfalutin production values of a Coke or Nike commercial.

But there’s more to object to than it looks bad. I know that pols run negative advertising because it works. You get to define your opponent before he does it for himself. Still, I think that negative advertising just makes us cranky and wary and even more cynical about politics and the possibility of change.

Undeniably, though, McCain’s commercial linking Britney and Paris to Obama has been a win for him. It’s pretty much the only ad produced by his crew that’s at all memorable, and it’s been viewed thousands of times on YouTube and produced all sorts of parodies.

Paris, of course, had some comedy writers create a response (“See you at the debates, bitches!”), which she read to the cameras while sunbathing. It was the most intelligent thing she’s ever done, and also extends McCain’s free media news cycle.

Rationally, of course, the comparisons made no sense — how does a black Harvard Law grad who worked as a community organizer compare in any way with blonde airheads? But there was genius in the meanness — the ad suggests, almost subliminally, that Obama is either a vapid party girl or Hitler. Still it’s not exactly a swift boat attack. Everyone saw it for what it was.

So it was amazingly dumb for the Obama camp to respond early last week — weeks after the McCain ad debuted — with a pathetically tepid tit-for-tat. It doesn’t acknowledge the McCain spot (a mistake) and instead takes the exact same low-down tack: “For decades, he’s been Washington’s biggest celebrity,” an announcer says, while we see clips of McCain on Leno, Letterman and Saturday Night Live. What’s so bad about that? It only makes the Cainster seem jocular and contemporary. Even the clip of McCain hugging George Bush on the White House Lawn places him at the center of power. It’s nowhere near as ruthless as the McCain version, which suggests that his opponent is either a sociopath or a girly-man or both. (McCain continued the girly-man shtick when he made fun of the tire gauge proposal — too “airy,” especially considering that the manly Republicans want to drill, drill, drill!)

As it is, with this response, it’s like two 5-year-olds crying to their mothers. “He called me a celebrity!” And, “He went on Letterman!” “No you went on Letterman!” By coming back with this “I know you are, but what am I?” answer, we’re all stumped as to exactly what the insult is.