In the hours since Meg Whitman released a bizarre new ad Friday, Calbuzz has been hunkered down in our darkened media room, playing and replaying the 60-second spot in slow-mo, stop motion and mute, deconstructing the thing with the same painstaking care we devoted to Blowup and the Zapruder film.
Unshaven and unshowered, fueling our round-the-clock labors with Cheez Whiz nachos and Team Gulp cups of 7-11 coffee, we’ve been desperately driven to answer one key question about the ad:
The new spot marks a radical and utterly random departure for the eMeg marketing team, which previously was characterized by a confident, consistent and tightly focused message discipline. Now, “Tough Business” suddenly lurches into unfamiliar, dangerous territory, like a drunken Rotary Club conventioneer stumbling after midnight into the Tenderloin district.
The ad presents to viewers a cue card-reading version of eMeg, who recites a whiny and rambling, if not incoherent, script.
Second-by-second, her expressions change and twitch – eyes narrowed in anger, brows lifted in self pity, mouth widened in rictus grin – a painful exercise that recalls nothing so much as the thespian exertions of Joanne Woodward in “The Three Faces of Eve.”
White-lettered talking point phrases swiftly unfurl and then disappear from the screen, like shards of Power Point on speed; the pastoral, Cezanne-like still life of pink roses, three oranges and a cozy coffee cup behind her is suddenly replaced by a discordant, grainy noir image of a border fence running to the ocean.
Beyond the uneven tone and whiplash aesthetics of the spot, however, what’s most curious is its insistent defensiveness, which appears aimed at answering in one swell foop every one of the countless attacks and charges that GOP rival Steve Poizner has hurled at her in the last six months.
To the extent it succeeds in that dubious goal, it seems to us that the ad does so solely on behalf of several hundred political junkies and paid campaign staffers, surely the only people in California familiar enough with the tit-for-tat warfare that’s unfolded to date to have enough background to follow the damn thing.
A couple of key points from the text:
1-“Sacramento politicians like Jerry Brown and Steve Poizner are fighting me every step of the way because I’m running for governor to clean up the mess they’ve made.”
Putting aside the inherent illogic of equating Brown and Poizner, the linguistic construct at the start of the sentence is at least a game, ju-jitsu effort to defend against the dynamic in which Whitman is being simultaneously attacked from left and right.
But as she delivers the second half of her assertion, eMeg’s face displays a flash of frosty anger aimed at the very notion that the two are “fighting” her at all – How dare they? – that not only reflects her own sense of entitlement but also makes her sound like a low-rent nagging mom telling you to go clean your room.
2-“I strongly oppose Barbara Boxer…”
This is the real Dr. Irwin Corey moment (“nonsensical observations about anything under the sun, but seldom actually making sense”) of the ad, when eMeg suddenly beams herself up into the U.S. Senate race, 17 words after she mentions in passing that she’s running for governor, with nary a pause for breath, and apropos of nothing.
Clearly, her wild swing on Boxer is meant to knock down what Whitman’s handlers must be polling as one of Poizner’s more effective lines of attack. But coming out of nowhere, without context or foundation, all it will do is confuse any ordinary voter who encounters the ad while surfing in search of a “Gray’s Anatomy” re-run , making him feel like he’s walked in in the middle of the movie.
3-“Absolutely no amnesty, period.”
About 20 percent of the 150 words of the ad are devoted to immigration, a bid to blunt and co-opt the Commish’s apparently effective embrace of a bash-the-immigrants line. We don’t recall eMeg previously vowing to send the national guard to the border, a Poizner applause line he was trying out as least as far back as an interview we did with him last fall.
And her professed no-amnesty certainty is a clear shift from what she said at an appearance on the border last year, when she stated that illegal immigrants “should do some things that would ultimately allow a path to legalization.” (In defense of Whitman on this point, it seems plausible that at the time of her earlier statement, she was ill-informed about the power and importance of code words, like “amnesty” and “pathway to citizenship” in the immigration debate; that was essentially the argument she made at the Republican state convention in March, when SacBee political writer Jack Chang pressed her at a presser about her quote and whether it represented an endorsement of amnesty).
As much as eMeg tries to muddy the waters on immigration, however, Poizner’s support for the Arizona immigration law, which he endorsed at last month’s big San Jose debate, just 48 hours after he said he opposed it, is now a sharp point of differentiation between the two that is working for him in appealing to conservative GOP primary voters.
Bottom line: eMeg’s new ad has a strong odor of desperation, and the look of a piece that was thrown together by committee on a tight deadline, a reflection of where things stand in the primary race with three weeks to go.
So different is it from the rest of her communications strategy that a rumor has spread on the internets that she has suddenly turned to the New York-based advertising firm BBDO to write it, a claim that eMeg’s mouthpiece, the volcanic Sarah Pompei, flatly denied.
“This is the musings (cq) of an internet gadfly,” she said.
From an undisclosed location: Big Dick Cheney’s endorsement of eMeg, in a Sunday op-ed in the Orange County Register, is a nice little coup, and its timing suggests a determination by Team Whitman to regain control of the news cycle, in a week when at least one new big poll will offer fresh, independent evidence of whether and, if so, by how much Poizner has actually slashed eMeg’s once-commanding lead.