When Politics Meets Pop Culture: The Mid-Term Election Report

I am writing this well before any election returns have come in. At the moment, I do not know for sure how well any of these candidates fared in the American mid-term elections last night (and given the likely results, I might prefer to remain in blissful ignorance for a bit.) Actually, if you are reading this it is probably because I stayed up way too late last night watching the returns.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been picking up a range of political ads which are, in one way or another, inspired by contemporary popular culture. As many of you know, I’m doing research right now on the concept of “fan activism” and the related concept of the “consumer-citizen,” both ways of getting at the blurring of the lines between politics and entertainment. This has been a key theme running through the campaign season here — especially as journalists and academics alike have come to grips with the Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert rally for sanity in Washington last weekend. I thought these spots, drawn from races around the country and a range of organizations, might spark some productive conversations on the day after the election.

Here’s one produced by the John Manchin (Democrat) campaign for the U.S. Senate in West Virginia.

Don’t blame Manchin. The title of George Lucas’s science fiction classic has been linked to missile defense systems since the Reagan era. In this case, the candidate just knows how to build on that imagery to transform the campaign in a space opera.

This spot, produced by GOP Proud, uses knowledge of reality television (in this case, Real Housewives of New Jersey) to construct a critique of three leading Democratic figures.

Here, the Pat Quinn (Dem.) for Governor campaign in Illinois borrows a few notes from Glee to try to catch voters up to what they’ve missed so far in that election cycle. Of course, Quinn took office after the previous governor Rod Blagojevich resigned (under scandal) and went on Celebrity Apprentice.

Here, Young Republicans take aim at the president who has become famous for campaigning on Facebook, representing youth voters as recovering from a bad online romance with an abusive boyfriend. This seems the logical followup to the celebrity-themed spots which the McCain campaign ran during the 2008 election campaign, though they are created by someone who knows what Facebook is and who is also no doubt aware that The Social Network has been generating buzz at the box office.

This last spot, produced by Jerry Brown, has been credited with helping turn around the Governor’s race in California. I’ve included it not because it features our Terminator governor (we’ve gotten used to that) but because in many ways, its juxtaposition of Meg Whitman and Arnold Schwartzenegger resembles one of the segments on The Daily Show which digs into the news archive to contextualize contemporary news footage.

So here are some questions to consider about these videos:

  • Which genres or forms of popular culture did they each evoke?
  • What kinds of fan knowledge or consumer interests do they tap?
  • What tone or attitude do they adopt towards the popular culture forms in question?
  • What kinds of rhetorical work are the pop culture references doing here?
  • Do the spots situate the candidate and the viewer as equally in the know about popular culture?
  • Do any of them seem pandering or patronizing in their use of pop culture images? If so, why?
  • How might we relate such spots to the “culture wars” which have long defined national politics? Is there a difference in running against popular culture as “cultural pollution” and mobilizing popular culture towards other political ends?
  • Are there differences in liberal and conservative strategies for deploying pop culture references?

I’d love to have readers send in other examples from this campaign season where candidates drew upon pop culture references to help frame their political messages.

theaskanison, one of my Twitter followers, has added this Twilight Zone themed spot to the mix:


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