Cain Ad Catches Fire — Or Blows Smoke
October 28, 2011
Atlantic Journal Constitution
By Bo Emerson
With his viral ad featuring a cigarette-smoking chief of staff, Republican front-runner Herman Cain accomplished the goal sacred to all guerilla marketing:
Get noticed at low cost.
“It seems to have had the desired effect,” said Georgia Republican operative Dan McLagan, one-time spokesman for former governor Sonny Perdue. “The desired effect was to get free media time.”
In that sense, the grainy 55-second video has been a raging success, generating more than 1 million hits on YouTube by tweaking liberal outrage at the taboo cigarette habit — and libertarian delight in liberal outrage.
Cain has said there is no “hidden message” in the ad, which focuses on staffer (and cigarette-puffer) Mark Block extolling Cain for running a “campaign like nobody’s ever seen,” and urging listeners to “take back America.”
But veteran political operatives aren’t buying it. The use of the cigarette was a calculated ploy, said Marty Kaplan, a professor of entertainment, media and society at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.
“Smoking is a dog-whistle to libertarians, Ron Paul supporters, people mad at the ‘nanny state,’ ” said Kaplan, who was deputy campaign manager for presidential candidate Walter Mondale in 1984.
“Plus, it vouches for Cain’s ‘authenticity.’” Kaplan said in an email, “The subtext is that only a real guy, not a cautious and opportunistic pol — [like Cain rival Mitt] Romney — would do something like this.”
The video, which ran unnoticed on the Internet for a week before catching fire, has been parodied by late night comedians Conan O’Brian, David Letterman and Stephen Colbert and denounced, applauded and discussed in every major media outlet. Mission accomplished.
“It seems like the kind of thing you do when you don’t have enough resources to put an ad on TV,” said McLagan. And he should know. McLagan helped run a Perdue campaign that included an anti-Roy Barnes ad featuring a giant rat terrorizing downtown Atlanta, an ad that earned back its cost many times over when it was replayed by news outlets.
Nevertheless, Cain’s ad hasn’t been an unmitigated success. It has prompted reporters to highlight Cain’s efforts as a restaurant lobbyist to fight smoking bans, as well as Block’s run-ins with the IRS and campaign watchdogs in Wisconsin.
The reviews from Cain’s supporters vary from the lukewarm to the enthusiastic.
“I really started cracking up when I saw it,” said Wayne Stoltenberg, a Dallas-area oil and gas executive and one of the top contributors to the Cain campaign. Stoltenberg has spent time with both Cain and Block, driving them around Texas to appointments and fund-raisers, and the image of Block puffing smoke at the camera is amusing to insiders.
“Knowing Mark, the guy can’t even get though a 20-second commercial spot without having to get a smoke.”