Wednesday, February 8

Inferring Context: The Clint Eastwood Commercial

In one of the most peculiar advertising case studies in recent history, the Clint Eastwood Super Bowl halftime commercial has been highjacked by politics. The irony? The advertisement was apolitical.

The only possible way anyone in politics could imagine that the commercial was political, especially with a subliminal message, is if they loaded it with inferences that just aren't there. It seems some people, on both sides of the aisle, have done exactly that.

Some on the left say the advertisement is about them. Some on the right say the advertisement is about the left. And I say they are both full of themselves. The commercial is about America, carrying forward the message and imagery from last year's Eminem commercial on a much grander scale.

While the spot itself won't do anything to bolster car sales, it does attempt to align Chrysler with the illusion of American toughness. Never mind that the company is controlled by Italian carmaker Fiat.



Among the most outspoken has been Karl Rove, who said he was offended by the advertisement. While Rove can be considered a brilliant political strategist (even if I don't agree with his tactics), he seems to have drank his own Kool-Aid. And unfortunately, Michelle Malkin too. They see Eastwood fronting a bailout ad, with Rove racheting up the rhetoric with the claim it somehow conveys Chicago-style politics. To be fair, CNN reporter Wolf Blizter thought it was an Obama Super Pac ad too.

The impossible nature of inference and the missed opportunities that come with it. 

To really understand why they miss the mark and allowed inference to steal what could have been their own opportunity, you really need to read the copy contained in the spot (full transcription below). After, I'll demonstrate how it works both ways (making it neutral), much like Clint Eastwood saw it before he signed on to read it.

It's halftime. Both teams are in their locker rooms discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half. It's halftime in America, too, People are out of work, and they're hurting. And they're all wondering what they're gonna do to make a comeback. And we're all scared because this isn't a game. The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again.

I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life. Times when we didn’t understand each other. It seems that we’ve lost our heart at times. The fog, division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead.

But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right and acted as one. Because that's what we do. We find a way through times and if we can't find one then we'll make one. All that matters now is what's ahead. How do we come from behind. How do we come together. And how do we win. Detroit is showing us it can be done. And what is true about them is true about all of us.

This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do, the world’s going to hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it’s halftime America. And out second half is about to begin.


The charges that it is a thinly disguised pro-Obama ad could be argued once someone has planted the seed. But is it really? Only certain lines can carry the case forward, especially the one suggesting that we pulled together to save Chrysler with an auto bailout, but the reality of the inference doesn't hold.

The auto bailouts were a bad idea. I know the point is debatable to many people, but the reality is that when government protects big companies, it inadvertently hurts smaller companies that want to rise up and take their place. Regardless, there comes a point when you have to move beyond the argument and forge ahead. We cannot reverse the auto bailouts. We made it clear no one ought to do it again.

So where does that leave us? If someone added the direct line that Obama was at the halftime of his career, and things are going to get better, then the case could be made. Likewise, people like Rove and Malkin could have made the claim that the American people are about to take back their government from the Obama administration in the second half, which is why things are going to better.

In fact, about the only wiggle room anyone has is that the Chrysler marketing team behind the ad picked an image of protestors in Wisconsin as a visual. They knew it might be politically charged, which is why they masked the signs. Still, they could have picked a protest image that was less political (although please note that I have to really stretch the intent to make a case. I really don't see it).

The sad truth is that neither side seems to get it, even after Eastwood issued a statement. 

"I am certainly not politically affiliated with Mr. Obama. It was meant to be a message about job growth and the spirit of America," Eastwood said. "I think all politicians will agree with it. I thought the spirit was OK ... If Obama or any other politician wants to run with the spirit of the ad, go for it."

And there you have it. If anyone wants to pick a side on the unexpected Clint Eastwood commercial debate, I suggest we forego right and left and pick Eastwood's side. His side is America's side.

Of course, the rub up shows why inferences are very dangerous things. They tend to show weaknesses in the people who make them. The conspiracy around every corner from the right. The audacity that anything good must be about them on the left. The zeal of feeding the angst machine by the media.

Along with Eastwood, Bill O'Reilly got it right too. He didn't see it as a propaganda spot either, which is no doubt why Eastwood sent his statement to O'Reilly rather than the media at large.
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