Has anyone seen those crazy joke ads that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign has been running -- you know, the ones in which she makes fun of herself?
Sadly, no one has. Said spots were the fabrication of MSNBC's satirical scribe Andy Borowitz, in a recent edition of his humor column, "The Borowitz Report." "In a sign of confidence, Hillary has begun airing vicious political advertisements ... targeting herself," it read. Genius, I thought, when I read the piece. What a visionary pop culturally ingratiating campaign strategy. Unfortunately, the fact that it was a big joke flew over my head until I read the last line: "Elsewhere, in his first major proposal on global warming, President Bush today declared war on the sun." My heart sank.
The reason I fell for the joke is that it promised the missing magical ingredient in Sen. Clinton's near-perfect campaign: the pop cultural connection. For some reason Hillary stopped rolling with the vote that her husband, Bill started rocking in the '90s. In the Jon Stewart/Borat era, catering to a pop culture sensibility, and in the case of the aforementioned fictionalized scenario, infusing a campaign with relatable lampooning may be one of the most effective ways to gain popularity and ultimately win over voters...especially those in that elusive, and often urban blasé twenty/thirtysomething demographic. The 'pop constituency' may not possess draconian drama in droves like the neo-con's Christian base, but young pop culturally connected urbanites make up an important part of Hill Bill, Vol 2's foundation.
Why should anyone care about young urban voters and the tragically hip? Their credo might as well be "I think therefore, iPod." But their potency and influence is above and beyond that of a "normal" person. In the marketing bible, The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell describes them as "connectors," "innovators" and "early adopters." Through their blogs, buzz, MySpace and Facebook profiles, and just plain personas, information and trends are spread that ultimately trickle down into the tragically un-hip Walmart demographic. Ergo, nowadays, the hand that rocks the turntables is the hand that rules the world.
Whether you're a supporter or opponent of Sen. Clinton's bid for presidency, chances are you've succumbed to the conclusion that the former First Lady's campaign has been ship-shape and airtight thus far. However, if you're a young-ish media-savvy, urbanite or wannabe urbanite digital denizen, ship-shape may feel as passé as '80s new wave, or, worse yet, the '80s new wave revival.
Don't get me wrong. I would love to see someone as smart and capable as Sen. Clinton take the executive branch. And having been part of a women's educational agenda for seven years (at Barnard College in New York and a prep school for girls in L.A.), the idea of a woman becoming president makes me want to, as the song implies, roar.
It's just that, as a pop culture journalist and consultant, my primary allegiance is to young metropolitan culture and the creative class, the core constituency that Clinton, Part Deux seems to have been unable to connect with. Where Barack Obama's entire campaign has been pretty much made up of pop cultural mojo, Clinton's pop potency seems to be more of a "fizzle." I can't tell you how often my inbox is flooded with invites to L.A. area Obama events. Yet, Senator Clinton's visit to my city earlier this month came and went as quietly as a Toyota Prius. It's gotten to the point where "the cool kids," those trendsetting arbiters of style are so pro-Obama (a.k.a. GQ cover boy), that admitting to being "Camp Hill," feels as terrifying and vulnerable as being outed in an airport bathroom sex scandal.
We've all seen the alchemical power of pop firsthand. Case in point: former Vice President Al Gore. Despite his intellectual prowess and visionary ideas, he was previously branded wooden and utterly un-engaging before his Extreme Makeover. Then an Oscar winning documentary, appearances on SNL and The Daily Show, the Live Earth concert, etc. refashioned his brand and a star was born. It makes sense--pop is in fact derived from popular (as in "he won the popular vote"). Sen. Clinton's husband, Bill, also had a knack for branding himself into a candidate worthy of the influencers' endorsement with his saxophone-playing magnetism and MTV pull.
But it all sounds so frivolous, doesn't it? And surely one of the reasons a smart lady like Hillary Clinton is shying away from such tactics has to do with her gender. When a man parodies himself and presents himself as the comedian or entertainer, he's viewed as a real mensch, someone the everyman can relate to, beloved. Yet a female, aiming for the highest position in the land stands the risk of being perceived as a "silly woman," and yes, quite frivolous as well.
Yet, I maintain that -- for better or worse -- today, entertainment value trumps the aforementioned Eisenhower era-style notion. Despite a successful Rovian effort to transform religious extremists into a powerful voting lobby, it is the urban influencers -- especially those in one of the two "media capitals," Los Angeles or New York whose trend-suggestive puissance can ultimately swing the general election in Clinton's favor. But it won't be done with brute force. It will happen through what the Clinton administration's assistant secretary of defense Joseph S. Nye dubbed "soft power" -- a slow pervasive influence.
They dictate fashion, style, scandal, credibility, importance... Yet, sadly, many adopters and their slightly more mainstream cohorts have abused that power in elevating the likes of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Dancing with the Stars to, well, stellar levels. But, with the right director -- and I do believe Sen. Clinton is that -- a different kind of pop cultural landscape might emerge. Perhaps, when it comes to advice, the shoe-in democratic nominee should think less "Sandy Berger" and more "Sandy Gallin."
Follow Shana Ting Lipton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ShanaTingLipton