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Obama Big Bird ad: a mistake, or shrewd? (+video)

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(Read caption) President Barack Obama deployed Big Bird in a new campaign ad Tuesday mocking Mitt Romney's vow to end federal funding for public broadcasting. Romney's campaign dismissed it as an example of Obama being small-minded. (Oct. 9)
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The Obama campaign released an ad Tuesday attacking GOP nominee Mitt Romney for promising to cut Big Bird’s federal funding. The spot engendered a fair bit of controversy, in case you haven’t heard. Was it a mistake? Or do Obama's strategists know what they're doing here?

First let’s look at the ad itself. It’s a 30-second spot that opens with shots of Bernie Madoff and other felon financiers. “Criminals. Gluttons of greed,” intones the ad’s narrator, in faux horror movie style.

“And the evil genius who towered over them? One man has the guts to speak his name,” continues the ad. It then cuts to Mitt Romney, saying “Big Bird.”

The giant feathered fellow himself then appears in a sort of montage of Sesame Street clips. The deep-voice narrator returns.

“Yellow. A menace to our economy,” he says. “Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about. It’s Sesame Street. Mitt Romney, taking on our enemies no matter where they nest.”

Why was this controversial? Big Bird didn’t like it, for one thing. Or rather his creator and copyright owner Sesame Workshop didn’t. They made it clear they hadn’t given permission to use their giant creature for political ends and asked the Obama campaign to pull the spot.

Sesame Workshop CEO Melvin Ming told the Abu Dhabi Media Summit on Wednesday that their request is “being considered.”

“We as a nonprofit organization, we are non-political.... Our goal is to reach every child in America. We don’t contaminate that with anything,” Mr. Ming said, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Second, conservatives derided the ad as small-bore. The Obama campaign isn’t responding to the larger points Romney made in last week’s debate, writes Mark Hemingway Wednesday in The Weekly Standard. Instead it’s focused on empty ephemera, according to Hemingway.

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“As strategic miscalculations go, the ad is pretty devastating,” he writes.

Finally, even some Democrats weren’t enthusiastic. They think Obama is chasing a shiny distraction while letting Romney get away with what they believe are larger distortions about his economic plan.

“It’s a diversion from the much bigger reality that any conceivable Romney/Ryan budget plan is going to hit a lot of accounts that are a lot bigger and more popular than PBS,” writes liberal Ed Kilgore on the Political Animal blog at The Washington Monthly.

Well, we have a couple of points to make. The first is that campaigns know a lot more about their target audiences then they publicly discuss. If the Obama campaign is releasing a Big Bird ad, it’s probably because they have focus group data from the debate that shows voters responded negatively to that point in particular. The idea didn’t just pop into strategists’ heads. It could be part of a larger plan to try and solidify, say, the votes of stay-at-home moms. (Or dads – we’ve seen more Elmo ourselves then we care to remember.)

But right now, does that matter? It’s possible this ad might have been more effective later in the campaign. The reality is that last week’s debate appears to have been a game-changing moment. It has coincided with perhaps the largest poll swings of the entire 2012 campaign. Romney now leads in the RealClearPolitics average of major polls by 0.8 percentage points. Ten days ago Obama led by 4.3.

Throughout this election cycle, at every moment when it appeared Barack Obama’s poll lead would succumb to gravity and Romney would catch up, the Obama team has countered with a major effort, writes RealClearPolitics senior election analyst Sean Trende. In June, for example, the Obama team fought back against a newly-nominated and rising Romney by filling the airwaves with anti-Bain ads.

The current decline in Obama’s ratings is just such a moment. Yet the Obama team has already exploited Romney’s “47 percent” comments about the percentage of Americans who see themselves as victims. The campaign’s Big Bird stuff just isn’t that big, politically-speaking.

“Is there anything else it can use to push back against the natural trajectory of the race?” writes Trende. “We’ll find out, and if we get a few more polls like the Pew poll [which showed a 4-point Romney lead], I suspect that we will find out sooner rather than later.”


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