The curious Britney-Paris-Obama triangle in John McCain's much opined-upon new TV spot is an advance in besmirchment, a vituperative leap in the evolution of the attack commercial. Give credit where credit is due: It's a shift in battle strategy, a jump from the cannonball to nerve gas.
Of course, attack advertising is as rowdy and old as American politics. There's no need to go through the litany of examples that keep political historians on MSNBC's speed dial. The point is that these attacks, though delivered differently as social norms and the media have changed, fall into conventional warfare categories. The candidate: a) is recklessly unqualified; b) lies, distorts and can't be trusted; c) has a dark and scurrilous personal life; d) hangs out with slime; e) will give comfort to our enemies.
The BPO spot relies on at least one of these proven winners -- it unabashedly says that Obama is unqualified to lead. But if that were all it did, it wouldn't be so chemically path-breaking. What makes it such a departure are the two quick, out-of-context, and seemingly gratuitous cuts to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. These few intensely strategic seconds introduce a totally new element into the marketing of presidential candidates. Let's call it Doppelganging.
I've never seen a presidential candidate attack another via a meta-proxy of this kind. McCain's people have decided to use these two young women -- Brittanis, if you w-ll -- as Poster Girls for celebrity gone mad, with all its encoded dangers, risks, and stinking decay. They are objectified and abstracted -- yet potently real -- doubles for Obama. They twin his ability to draw huge crowds, to capture the global imagination, to besot Sarkozy with a man swoon (more profound than a man crush), and allegedly to disable the media's skepticism the way scientists can knock out a gene.
All of this power is re-packed and then nuked with a cinematic flash of trash.
Swiftboating was far less insidious. Its appeal was essentially rational: John Kerry exaggerated his heroism and hence should not be trusted. (True, there was an emotional element as well. Because the charges resonated with a latent perception that he was inauthentic, they amplified any embryonic doubts about him).
Doppelganging makes no such appeal to rationality, which is why it's nerve gas versus the cannonball. Its non-verbal form makes it a deep brain attack. The Brittanis message shoots deep into the amygdala, the ancient portion of the brain where fear is registered. The girls are never referred to directly; they don't have to be, and shouldn't be. Because we are imprinted with them, and everything they stand for, the message gets through unconsciously.
Let me deconstruct further. Here's what Steve Schmidt wants to happen in your brain when that commercial appears:
First, you see Obama in all his strength and power. Then Brittanis appears, and all sorts of neural networks get fired up. (See the work of Drew Westen and Joel Weinberger in "The Political Brain.") A chemical synaptic tsunami erupts. You're flooded with accumulated resentment at our celerity culture, with disgust over the degradation of standards, superficiality and sensationalism. You are reminded of the media as enablers of our worst instincts.
Suddenly, Barack-as-meteor is seen in that context. (There is a lot of psychological research that shows what happens when viewers are presented with a single image; it significantly influences the perception of what follows). So if you're drawn to Obama, but are troubled by aspects of his ascent on an unconscious level, that inchoate concern gets connected to the synaptic tsunami and grabs hold of you.
Henceforth, when you see Obama, all the things (or at least many of them) that drew you to him -- his ability to inspire hope, to motivate -- will make you nervous, or even repel you. (It's like a relationship gone bad.) Your amygdala is activated, but not by fear of terrorism or other external threats, as more conventional attack ads succeed in doing. Here, the fear is that we are about to turn our country over to a shallow media artifact. This is also a way for you to take the race issue, a related fear, and re-wardrobe it in a more palatable form.
Yes, you've been Doppelganged.
And because Doppelganging goes deep, it can house multiple contradictions and not fall apart under the weight. How could Obama on one hand be elite and out-of-touch, and on the other, so emotionally connected with people that he's dangerous on account of it? It doesn't matter. The brain and the voting booth are both inhospitable to logic.
The campaign has a long way to go, but McCain has shown his willingness to go meta, to go deep. It could backfire. Obama has managed to deflect virtually every attack on him by holding up his hand and sending the fiery missile back to destroy its launcher, super-hero style. Running against Obama by running against the Obama phenomenon could be like running against the weather. By November, Dopelganging could be long forgotten, or we could look back and see this as the beginning of the deep brain battle.
For more information on this subject, go to The Political Brain.