A protesting Paris Hilton notwithstanding, presumptive Republican Presidential candidate John McCain seemed to finally hit on something about Democratic rival Barack Obama that touched a faint nerve. That's his rap of him as a Paparazzi darling. It's negative, frivolous and hits inches below the belt. Despite the hits McCain took for comparing Obama to Hilton and Britney Spears he recycled the Obama-as-celebrity ad and ran it in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. They're all fiercely contested toss-up states.
McCain defied the critics for a couple of good reasons. A whole lot of Americans are getting weary of seeing and hearing about Obama. An opinion poll by the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of Americans said that they have seen too much of him. Not surprising, a majority of Republicans carped about Obama's over saturation. More ominous, nearly half of independents said they saw too much of him. Even more ominous, one third of Democrats said he was getting too much ink and camera face time.
The word for this is overexposure. It's a word that movie stars and personalities often dread. They know that it can make them but it can also break them. The public does get vicarious titillation and kicks from their antics, frivolities and even misdeeds. But a celebrity crazed public that feels the media is in kick drive to shove a celebrity down its throat will gag will rebel. When that happens the fawned over star can quickly sink in the public's eyes and interest. The fields are cluttered with star wreckage. Even when a star's power doesn't dip and they're actually doing something politically and socially worthwhile there's still a public break point. Bono recognized that. In a CNN interview last year he said: "Look, I'm Bono and I'm sick of Bono. And I fully understand. ... I look forward to a time when I'm not such a pest and a self-righteous rock star."
There's another reason why stars often fall flat on their faces with the public. It's precisely because they are stars whose importance and value is wildly inflated. They command banks of cameras and reporters' notepads on the occasions they do speak out on heavy-duty political or global issues. The average Joe or Jane and even those who are expert on these issues can't get this kind of media play. That can stir resentment. There's a very thin and very precarious line between genuine political activism and involvement and media hype. A celebrity that strays over that line risks angering and alienating many Americans.
The public's awe-anger with celebrities is so great that political candidates who haven't a prayer of rising to the pantheon of the Paparazzi hounded think that lining up packs of stars and celebrities in their campaign gives them a leg up over their opponents. That's a mistake. Earlier this year when Oprah endorsed and barnstormed for Obama in a handful of states, a Pew Poll found that by a lopsided majority voters said that her shilling for him wouldn't sway them one bit. In a Harris Poll in April nearly half of Americans frowned on celebrity involvement in presidential politics. While less than three in 10 said it was a good thing.
The thousands that clawed for tickets to rub shoulders with Oprah at her Obama campaign rallies were there precisely because of her star power and Americans' insatiable celebrity mania. That didn't translate into votes.
Yet a majority of Americans still think that celebrities can change voter's minds about candidates. They don't.
Celebrity endorsements, however, fail miserably. Willie Nelson, Madonna, Jon Bovi, Martin Sheen and George Clooney are big-money celebrities and virtual household names. They all endorsed Democratic presidential candidates in 2004. Nelson endorsed Dennis Kucinich. Bon Jovi endorsed John Kerry. Sheen endorsed Howard Dean. Madonna backed Wesley Clark. One of their picks went down to flaming defeat. The other three never came close to getting the Democratic presidential nomination.
The danger zone for celebrities, and that's especially true with movie stars, is that the press, paparazzi, and the public are so enthralled by their romantic escapades, sex life, arrests, divorces, separations, hairstyle changes, diet, pregnancies, or physical ailments that they forget or pay no attention to their movies and their work. That makes it even harder to minimize, dismiss, or ridicule them and their work.
McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis with his tongue stuck hard in his cheek told reporters in mock anguish that he wished that his guy was an international celebrity too. That's exactly the last thing he wants. Even if he meant it there's little chance that the celebrity curse would ever strike McCain. In fact, the word that best describes him is underexposure, and by comparison to Obama, maybe even gross underexposure. The Pew Research Center poll found that barely one fourth of those asked said that they had heard enough about McCain. If that hurts Obama McCain will love it even if Paris doesn't.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).