Friday, March 23, 2007

Hillary Is No Big Brother

By now, you've seen the Hillary/Apple/1984 commercial that was whipped up by a freelance political consultant (who formerly worked on the Obama campaign) and that has been widely disseminated via YouTube and hundreds of other websites. (If you haven't seen it, here's a link.) Two comments:

1. Whether you like Hillary or not--and I personally would rank her, at this moment, no better than fourth among the declared Democratic contenders--the ad is extremely unfair. You could take a clip of practically anyone and insert it in place of the image of Hillary on the screen, and they would end up looking creepy and sinister. (Think about it.) The ad certainly doesn't demonstrate anything about Hillary--it just smears her by associating her with emotions that are, at the very least, wildly disproportionate.

What's more, it's disingenuous for defenders of the ad to say (as some have done in the blogosphere) that it's merely designed to satirize Hillary's "robotic," "inauthentic," "overly scripted," "old-politics" campaign. In fact, it goes much further, powerfully evoking the widespread right-wing Republican belief that Hillary is a would-be dictator eager to enslave Americans. Think I'm exaggerating? The book title and subtitle pictured here weren't my idea. Plenty of people on the right are ready to believe this nonsense. The 1984 ad plays into their hands and will certainly be helpful to the Republicans if Hillary gets the nomination.

And lest you say I am over-reacting, consider the history of the iconography in this ad. When Apple originally created the ad to introduce the Macintosh computer, it was deliberately using hyperbole. It was obvious that comparing IBM to a brutal, tyrannical Big Brother was an absurd exaggeration. (For starters, IBM never had an army, prison camps, or secret police.) Depicting Mac users as feisty iconoclasts battling an all-powerful regime was just a fun way of tapping into everybody's inner rebel, drawing on emotions derived from a much more serious conflict--the conflict between freedom and tyranny dramatized in George Orwell's novel.

By recasting the Apple ad with Hillary as Big Brother, the hacker is dragging the 1984 symbolism back from the world of technology into the world it originally came from--the world of politics. Suddenly it's no longer so obvious that the ad is a satiric exaggeration! We all know that IBM doesn't literally have the power to turn the country into a dreary hopeless den of conformity. Do we know that about the next president of the United States? Not necessarily.

Thus, transforming a computer ad which embodied a mock political message into a real political message invites us to take its imagery much more literally. And I have a real problem with this. Whatever you may think of Hillary, she is no Big Brother. Depicting her as one is--well, is Limbaugh-esque.

2. I'm hearing a lot of talk about how this ad illustrates the incredible new powers of technology, of the netroots, of citizen activists, etc. etc. (Paul Begala and Arianna Huffington were just expatiating about these themes on WNYC radio.) Let's not get carried away here. Remember this ad is a ripoff of an old media ad. It gets most of its evocative power from the production values of the original TV commercial as well as from our memories of how the original was used--as the opening salvo of a very effective marketing campaign designed with great creativity and chutzpah and launched with enormous fanfare during the Super Bowl, no less.

So the excitement this anti-Hillary message is generating is largely derivative. It doesn't show how the little guy with no resources can use technology to create a powerful message--it shows how a little guy can make a big splash by cleverly stealing, twisting, and repurposing a message originally created by a big guy.

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