Say what you will about it — and people are saying plenty — it’s a dead certainty you’ve never seen a campaign video quite like this one.
Here’s a gray-haired gentleman, his bespectacled eyes a pair of dark raccoon circles, extolling Republican Herman Cain in rather a conventional way (“We’ve run a campaign like nobody has ever seen,” he says). And then the guy, Cain’s chief of staff, Mark Block, does something unexpected and kind of shocking: He stares into the camera and draws a cigarette to his lips, blowing a bit of smoke at the viewer.
Cut to: a tight shot of Cain, posed at an angle to the camera, as a devilish grin slowly spreads across his face.
Perhaps no one is more responsible for the Georgia businessman’s meteoric rise in the presidential polls than Block, a Republican strategist and tea party leader who’s left a trail of questionable campaign work behind him.
Since its release earlier this week, the very viral Cain video has elicited surprise, delight, condemnation and, mostly, bafflement. The over-arching question is, what exactly does it all mean?
Is it a self-conscious attempt to flout convention? A metaphoric middle finger to cardiovascular correctness? A subliminal suggestion, as Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly put it in an interview with Block, that Cain isn’t playing to “East and West Coast elites” but to the smoking constituency? Or is it just a shiny bit of bait for the news media?
None of the above, according to Block.
“There was no subliminal message,” he told Kelly. “In fact, I personally would encourage people not to smoke. It’s just that I’m a smoker and a lot of people on the staff said, ‘Just let Block be Block.’ That’s what it’s all about.”
Well, that may be the least plausible interpretation of all. After all, much of the perplexity stems from Block’s obscurity. Who is this guy, anyway, and what does he do? Since no one has ever won an election based on his chief of staff’s personality, letting “Block be Block” hardly seems like a winning communications strategy for Herman Cain.
More plausible is that Block’s smoking telegraphs defiance and independence. Smoking has been de-glamorized and marginalized for decades, and it has been killing people for even longer. But that hasn’t stopped 46 million U.S. adults from doing it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As Block said later in his Fox News interview, “You walk into a veteran’s bar in Iowa and they’re sitting around smoking. I’m not the only one in America who smokes, for God’s sake.”
In other words, Block, and by extension Cain, may be keeping it real for both nicotine slaves and those who don’t like to see them pushed around.
What’s more, with his droopy mustache and graying temples, Block is no supermodel. And maybe that’s the point, too. Block, who has been accused of voter suppression and was banned from running Wisconsin political campaigns for three years to settle accusations he coordinated a judge’s re-election campaign with a special interest group, is anti-glamorous and anti-slick, in stark contrast to a silky pro like Mitt Romney. The cigarette drag just intensifies the rogue impression: This isn’t about business as usual. And neither is Cain.
But leave it to those coastal elites to say otherwise.
“My first reaction is that it’s a little bizarre,” said Travis Ridout, a professor at Washington State University who specializes in political advertising. “It’s reflective of a political campaign that isn’t well organized, isn’t professional, and doesn’t know what image to put out there. What impression of Cain do you get from the ad? I don’t know.”
Ridout says Block looks like “the manager of a Godfather’s Pizza (franchise) on his smoking break.” The risk in such an ad, he says, is that it falls on the wrong side of the line between “outsider-edgy” and “second-rate and pathetic.”
Smoking has rarely been depicted in presidential campaign TV ads, especially in more recent emphysema-conscious decades. During Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 reelection campaign, to cite one unusual example, Eisenhower’s ad men created a four-minute spot that featured a taxi-driver character who comments about Ike’s leadership qualities while casually smoking a cigarette and walking his dog across the street from the White House. But there are few images of any kind of an actual candidate smoking, especially of a certain longtime smoker named Barack Obama.
If the Cain video succeeds on any level at all, it’s as an attention-getting device, says Mike Carberry, a former advertising executive who teaches marketing at American University’s Kogod School of Business. “Perhaps it’s just so different that it’s an attempt to break through the clutter,” he says. “It certainly stands out” because of its unusual nature.
But now that Cain’s got our attention, what message is the former pizza executive delivering, Carberry and others wonder.
“It’s lightning in a bottle,” says Ken Goldstein, president of Campaign Media Analysis Group in Arlington, Va. “What did it cost to make? Maybe a dollar and eighty cents? It’s a riskless strategy that succeeds in drawing attention.”
But ultimately, all it’s really doing is blowing smoke, Goldstein concludes: “A lot of people saw it. A lot of people are talking about it. But will it raise money? And more important — will it make people go out on a cold night in Iowa in January to stand in a corner for you?”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.