You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Latest Column: Candidates Put Pop in Politics — And Often Flop

Romney-flag_300Mitt Romney’s attack line on President Obama last week undoubtedly was scripted, polished and keyed up for just the right moment. “The gap between his promises and his performance is the largest I’ve seen, well, since the Kardashian wedding and the promise of ’til death do we part,” Romney said.

Sure the reference was contrived, but guess what portion of Romney’s speech — his umpteenth in a week in Iowa — got played over and over?

In the battle for campaign lines that stick, candidates could do worse than reference pop culture in making the case to voters. The idea of Romney investing any amount of time keeping up with the Kardashians conjures images of a parent trying too hard to be hip, but the mix of serious politics and not-so-serious tabloid pop is what gets picked up, re-tweeted and rehashed. And given the state of political discourse these days, there doesn’t seem to be much concern that the mix of the superficial with the serious is somehow debasing the nature of rhetoric. The last election cycle saw candidates granting interviews to “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood,” anxious to reach audiences who otherwise may not be paying attention; this time around, why not TMZ?

Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason U., says that politicians turn to such references — even if they may not have much of an awareness of the people whose notoriety they’re borrowing — because “it is more likely that the talk over the water cooler will be about Kim Kardashian than the latest policy statement.

“The risks are that it looks phony,” Lichter says. “You can’t be older and stuffy and make references that teenagers make, and you might do it wrong.” Before he ended his presidential bid, Tim Pawlenty gave a speech to College Republicans where he referenced Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Charlie Sheen, and even said the rather cringe-worthy line, “There’s going to be a lot of winning on the Republican side.” Vice President Dan Quayle in 1992 criticized the TV sitcom character Murphy Brown for having a child without a father, and caught backlash not just on the sitcom, but also from political strategists who cited the inanity of picking a fight with a fictional character.

But even if candidates aren’t aware of the situation they’re referencing, a nugget can still work if it’s newsworthy enough, Lichter adds.

Martin Kaplan, founding director of USC’s Norman Lear Center, was chief speechwriter for Vice President Walter Mondale in 1980 when he inserted a reference to the “Who Shot J.R?” cliffhanger episode on “Dallas,” the top-rated TV show of the time, into a speech. According to Kaplan, Mondale read it out loud, his staff laughed, and the vice president turned to Kaplan and asked, “Who the hell is J.R.?” Mondale read the speech anyway and the line worked.

With the right delivery, such lines can be effective. Facing serious competition for the Democratic nomination against Gary Hart in 1984, Mondale attacked his rival’s rhetoric with the line, “Where’s the beef?” — a reference to an ubiquitous Wendy’s ad that used the phrase repeatedly. President Ronald Reagan successfully used the “make my day” line spoken by Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan character in “Sudden Impact,” and in 1988, George H.W. Bush appropriated a “Dirty Harry”-type attitude when he told the Republican National Convention, “Read my lips: No new taxes.” Of course, the memorable line had a boomerang effect in 1992, making it easy to recall the promise in the face of the fact that Bush had, indeed, raised taxes.

More Voices

  • Stock market Stock buyback

    Stock Buybacks Leave Firms Without Funds to Invest in Future (Column)

    Corporate giants on the S&P 500 have spent more than $720 billion during the past year on stock buybacks. Media and entertainment firms account for only a fraction of that spending, but even $1 million spent on share repurchases seems a foolhardy expenditure at this transformational moment for the industry. The record level of spending [...]

  • Hollywood Has Come Far With Diversity

    An Insider's Look at Hollywood's Diversity Efforts and How Far It Still Needs to Go

    I am a white man working in Hollywood. I grew up in Beverlywood, an all-white, predominantly Jewish, Los Angeles neighborhood sandwiched between 20th Century Fox Studios and MGM, where my elementary school had only one black student. I am compelled to write about diversity in Hollywood because “diversity” — in front of and behind the camera [...]

  • Venice Film Festival A Star is

    How Venice, Toronto and Telluride Festivals Stole Cannes' Luster (Column)

    In all the years I’ve been attending film festivals, I have never seen a lineup that looked as good on paper as Venice’s did this fall, boasting new films by Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”), Damien Chazelle (“First Man”), Paul Greengrass (“22 July”), Mike Leigh (“Peterloo”) and the Coen brothers (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) in competition, [...]

  • Black Women in Medicine BTS

    Hollywood Needs to Include People With Disabilities on Both Sides of the Camera (Guest Column)

    In five years, nothing has changed. Despite open calls for greater diversity and inclusion, recent research shows that there was little change in the number of characters with disabilities in popular films in 2017. A study conducted by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that [...]

  • Seven Seconds

    Fighting the Racial Bias at the Core of Hollywood’s Cop Shows (Guest Column)

    If fiction is the lie that tells a deeper truth, the TV crime genre has been, for the most part, the lie that simply tells a lie. As a storyteller (Veena) and an advocate for racial justice (Rashad), we collaborated for the past two-and-a-half years in an attempt to reimagine the roles of cops, victims, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content