The media’s abuzz with criticism about Herman Cain’s new campaign ad. A link to the video is included below, but I’ll give a brief synopsis. The ad starts with Cain’s campaign director speaking to the audience in an up close (kind of too close for comfort, creepy way often seen in “amateur” horror movies like “The Blair Witch Project”) about how Herman Cain is the right man to “take this country back”. The campaign director then takes a very deliberate drag of a cigarette while a not at all subtle song entitled “I am America” plays in the background. Finally, Herman Cain’s face appears on the screen. If you thought the creepy closeness of his campaign manager’s face was imposing, you haven’t seen anything yet. The creepiness of all of this is far surpassed, however, by the absolute creepiness of Herman Cain’s slow-forming smile. It’s very come into my windowless van-esque. Stephen Colbert’s brilliant ads and creepy smile contest of his own are hilarious. (You can actually see the whole Herman Cain ad in the beginning of the Stephen Colbert parody.)
Even Fox News was worried by the inclusion of smoking in the ad. This goes to show how far society has come (or at least how far the media has come) in stigmatizing smoking. This is a good thing because, as we all know, smoking leads to proven health problems and shouldn’t be glamorized. This is not to mention all of the other disgusting drawbacks of smoking. HOWEVER, I believe the amount of attention the media gave to this particular ad is ridiculous. A man is smoking in a campaign ad. So what? Is the idea that kids will think it’s cool to smoke because Herman Cain’s campaign manager did it for a second in a campaign ad that far fewer people would have seen had it not been plastered on every news network all day? Or that viewers will so strongly associate smoking with being an “American” (or a “real American” in Tea Party parlance) because a man was smoking while “I am America” plays in the background? Surely, that can’t be the worry. All kinds of disastrous things (things much more destructive than smoking) occur in campaign ads while patriotic songs play in the background. Just look at some of Rick Perry’s ads. It’s that smoking is seen as unacceptable. And yet…
In an interview with Megyn Kelly on Fox News, Mark Block, Cain’s campaign manager, was asked about this very issue. Kelly asked him if he was attempting to portray a “real American” type. (I’m paraphrasing.) She asked him if the idea of the ad was to reach out to blue collar, working class Americans in rural areas, if smoking (as well as the clothes he was wearing and the entire feel of the ad) was the campaign’s attempt at connecting with an important constituency in the early primary states. Block said yes.
This is the issue we should be talking about. Besides the sleaziness of outright pandering, the idea that a certain demographic of people should all be smokers (or that enough of them are that they find smoking in an ad a positive reason to vote for someone) does an incredible disservice to this portion of the electorate. To paint anyone with such a broad brush stroke is wrong. It’s even more wrong, though, when looking at the media outrage and contrasting this with the acceptance over the idea of trying to relate to those (possibly smoking) working class folks. If that’s not elitism, I don’t know what is. (And many Republicans have claimed Obama’s an elitist. Really?) How about we don’t condone—even encourage—smoking for some segments of the population while outright admonishing it for the general population? I looked online for editorials expressing outrage over this idea, and found none.
The statistics for smokers in the United States, as provided by the CDC, with figures for 2009 (the most recent available) list the percentage of American smokers at 21%. This is a relatively low percentage, and while the study does conclude that those who are “poor” and those who have not earned a bachelor’s degree are more likely to smoke, it does not provide specifics on those percentages.
Cain’s team, if they are truly hoping to capture a certain demographic, are using heuristics. Instead of listing concrete things Cain would do for the voters he hopes to attract, his ad is filled with vague allusions and trumped up patriotism. And, of course, that out of place cigarette.