Obama Big Bird ad: a mistake, or shrewd?

The Obama campaign's new ad attacking Romney for promising to cut Big Bird's funding has been criticized by conservatives, the Sesame Workshop CEO, and even some Democrats.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
A supporter in the front row holds a Big Bird book as President Obama speaks at a campaign event at The Ohio State University Oval, Tuesday, Oct. 9, in Columbus, Ohio.

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.

“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.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Obama Big Bird ad: a mistake, or shrewd?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today