- Ad Title: “Role Models”
- Ad Sponsor: Hillary for America
- Issue of Focus: Bad role model for kids
- Type of Advertisement: Negative-comparative
- Broadcast Locations/Target Audiences: National distribution with focus on Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, New Hampshire, Iowa, Florida, Nevada and North Carolina, Arizona
- Dates of Airing: July 7, 2016
- Length (30 or 60 second spot ad): 60 seconds
- Web Address of the Advertisement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrX3Ql31URA
- Web Address for Ad Transcript: http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/2016/role-models
DONALD TRUMP: I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this, they’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks. And you can tell them to go f** themselves. I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s like incredible. When Mexico sends its people. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. You know you could see, there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever. You go to see this guy, I don’t know what I said. Agh I don’t remember.
HILLARY CLINTON: Our children and grandchildren will look back at this time, at the choices we are about to make, the goals we will strive for, the principles we will live by. And we need to make sure that they can be proud of us.
Alyson Farzad, Nora Murphy, & Claudia Serrano Rico, University of Maryland
Introduction and Context
It’s a race for the ages. At least that’s how some in the press have dramatized the 2016 presidential election. Hillary Clinton’s campaign added to this narrative with her release of the “Role Models” campaign advertisement in July 2016. This controversial ad depicts Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the two presidential candidates vying for the presidency. The campaign ad first aired before either Clinton or Trump received their official nomination from their respective political parties. Clinton’s campaign not only made assumptions about the general election, but it also set up what would come to be the standard narrative for the election.
By releasing this ad before the Democratic National Convention, Clinton moved the conversation away from Bernie Sanders as a potential Democratic nominee for the presidency. Clinton also took advantage of the Republican Party’s tumultuous primary process, pitting Trump against 16 other candidates. “Role Models” in response seeks to convince Trump dissenters to consider her candidacy in the lead up to the national conventions. “Role Models” accordingly makes non-partisan appeals to a cross-section of the American public – Democrats and Republicans – by creating an image of Trump as an irrational, dangerous actor and Clinton as a rational, hopeful protector. This narrative is masterfully created through the eyes and ears of children.
This analysis will look at the arguments and strategies at work in this advertisement. First, the ad constructs a moral argument. “Role Models” depicts Donald Trump as an irrational and inappropriate candidate. His character is juxtaposed against the more moral Hillary Clinton. Second, the ad includes strategies embedded within this larger argument. These visual strategies strengthen the moral claim through evidence. The ad depicts all of these claims and assumptions through three angles: 1) the point of view of children; 2) the depiction of Trump as an irrational actor and dangerous entertainer; and 3) the portrayal of Clinton as the moral alternative.
The Moral Argument
“Role Models” is a one-minute campaign ad showing children (diverse in age, race, and gender) watching the most controversial sound bites and clips from Trump’s primary campaign. Juxtaposed against Trump’s behavior, Clinton emerges at the end of the ad as the obviously moral choice. The advertisement makes four central claims to argue for Clinton as the superior candidate. Each of the claims uses universal appeals to the American public with collective language such as “our” and “we.”
First, as the title suggests, the ad claims that “our children” are watching the example “we” set for them. The underlying assumption is that children learn by example and adults are responsible for protecting children. Evidence of Trump as an inappropriate example comes from footage and sound bites of him acting irrationally on television. For example, Trump makes fun of a person with a disability in one news clip. Trump flails his arms and yells: “…I don’t know what I said. Agh I don’t remember.” His ablest message is not a kind lesson for children nor is it a positive message for our most impressionable population.
Secondly, the ad questions Trump’s moral character as a role model. The ad draws on expectations that the president act as a moral figure who leads the nation with a certain decorum. Trump, as a presidential candidate, does not abide by these social rules. In the ad, Trump is shown saying, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s like incredible.” Not only does he flout decorum norms expected of American presidents, he also disregards laws designed to keep Americans safe.
Third, the ad poses a question about our guiding principles. The logic suggests Trump will disgrace the principles governing society if he becomes president. Trump symbolizes sexism, ableism, profanity, violence, and xenophobia. The claim assumes society needs moral principles and the president should epitomize these principles.
Finally, Clinton questions whether “our children” will be proud of us if Trump is elected. Clinton asks: “Our children and grandchildren will look back at this time, at the choices we are about to make, the goals we will strive for, the principles we will live by.” This claim questions how history will judge our contemporary decisions and implies our children will serve as our social judges in the future. By posing this question at the end of the ad, Clinton presents her candidacy as the answer. Clinton offers herself as the moral alternative to Trump’s flawed candidacy and character. The ad’s visual imagery further emphasizes this message.
One prominent visual strategy – the point of view of the camera’s gaze – features the perspective of children. The ad captures Trump’s behavior through the eyes and ears of children who are portrayed as innocent and vulnerable. The ad features close-up images of children’s faces lit by the glow of the television. The camera stays tight on the kids’ soft faces, lingering to draw the audience in through their innocence. The scenario seems as though the children are watching a movie before bed; each is settled under a blanket. They cling to objects that offer comfort or snuggle up to a sibling. One little girl has wet hair as though she has taken her evening bath. The camera then methodically flips back and forth between the clips of children’s faces and the images of Trump on the television screen. The audience sees and hears the Trump coverage the children are consuming. This strategic camera-work creates a visual frame for the audience that calls “attention to some aspects of reality while obscuring other elements” that can promote “different reactions” for viewers. Primarily, the ad creates the frame by focusing the camera view on the children’s eyes and ears through the use of extreme close-ups. The steady back and forth between Trump and the children becomes hypnotizingly rhythmic. This visual pattern forces the audience to recognize the children’s innocence and calls attention to Trump’s dangerousness. Trump’s presence is all consuming. The children’s faces are blank and almost zombie-like as they watch clips of Donald Trump; they eat distractedly or watch with their mouths open and eyes glued to the screen. They consume his performance much like they would a movie or a cartoon show. The children’s point of view captures Trump’s most controversial sound bites.
One particularly powerful visual appeal depicts Trump as a danger to children. At one point, the camera changes its point of view, showing the back of a child’s head and focusing on his ears to symbolize that our children are listening. What is most jarring about this image is when Trump – who is depicted out of focus on the TV screen in front of the child – points his hand in the shape of a gun directly at the child who is watching. The child experiences Trump’s expressions of violence by watching him. The ad portrays the child as metaphorically unsafe, in part, because his parents are not available to shield him from such dangers. All the children in the ad are alone in the dark – signifying a situation when children can view dangerous content without parental discretion. Donald Trump is the dangerous content. The children are left alone to filter Trump’s messages that permeate all popular culture.
As a second visual strategy, “Role Models” characterizes Trump as an irrational actor through clip after clip of his questionable behavior. The ad portrays Trump as dangerous for children. Each video clip of Trump comes from news sources, showing how his behavior is widely distributed and consumed. His pervasive presence in the news makes parental censorship difficult, unlike channels or genres parents can easily control (pornography, violence, mature content). There is no viewer discretion warning when Trump appears on the screen, yet this ad subtly argues his words could merit such a warning. Trump is seen and heard making outrageous remarks. He makes violent and profane threats, as he declares “…and you can tell them to go f*** themselves” and “guys like that when they were in a place like this, they’d be carried out on a stretcher.” Trump looks red-faced and out of control. He makes a direct reference to violence, claiming, “I could shoot someone and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Trump forms his hands into the shape of a gun, his nonverbal cues complimenting his threatening words. In this statement he not only refers to violence, but also suggests there are no consequences to violence. He exemplifies xenophobia and scare tactics, asserting that Mexicans are “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime.” Trump then calls them “rapists.” Trump’s sexist account of a woman describes her as having “blood coming out of her wherever.” As these clips play, the ad shows the children consuming his perilous messages. Trump’s remarks engage socially unacceptable ideas that are akin to dangerous entertainment on TV. Therefore, the series of news clips creates a sense that children should be protected from Trump’s words, much in the way they are kept from watching porn, violence, and profanity.
Lastly, the ad juxtaposes Trump and Clinton by characterizing Clinton as the moral light. As the sound clips of Trump fades, so does the background music volume; it then crescendos as white font appears on a black screen, “Our children are watching; What example will we set?” The music volume remains high and energetic as the white words fade and Hillary Clinton’s calm voice answers the call. Clinton is the answer to the question as the camera directs the gaze of the audience to a poised mid-body, straight-on shot of Clinton. She appears calm, rational, and caring – the direct opposite characterization of Trump. To add to the effect, Clinton wears a white jacket, a color that symbolizes purity. Clinton speaks about “our children and grandchildren,” giving the audience a reason to want to be proud of their choices. The camera then directs back to the children. Their faces are more hopeful and their eyes are bright. The camera uses fewer close-ups. Instead, the view features a wider shot symbolizing a bigger picture and the children as our future. Visually the lighting shifts and becomes brighter. At the conclusion of the ad, Clinton is pictured in her white jacket with her hand over her heart – a depiction of patriotism and the correct moral choice for America.
Reactions and Conclusion
The audience’s reception to this ad was overwhelmingly positive; critics viewed it as “ingenious,” “a powerful attack,” and as a “powerful framing device.” The ad highlighted the negativity in Trump’s messages, where “Trump’s own words are used against him.” The ad served as a warning – especially to female voters – to protect the country for our posterity. Women voters are a targeted demographic for the Clinton campaign. First Lady Michelle Obama, one of the most important female opinion leaders in the United States, borrowed sentiments from “Role Models” in an address she made on July 27, 2016. There, she asked the audience who they want serving as their children’s role model – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. The ad circulated in key states in the presidential election – Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, New Hampshire, Iowa, Florida, Nevada and North Carolina, Arizona – targeting swing voters with its compelling message.
Overall, “Role Models” depicts Clinton as the correct choice for president, as told from the perspective of children. The ad compares Clinton and Trump’s messages for America’s children. “Role Models” juxtaposes the morality of the presidential candidates through their words and visual imagery. The ad warns parents to shield their children from Trump’s dangerous messages by using camera angles to direct the gaze of the audience. The camera shows the point of view of children as they consume clips of Trump’s irrational words and behavior. This strategy is critical to the remainder of the ad, which depicts Trump as the dangerous entertainer and Clinton as the moral choice. The persuasive power of “Role Models” stems from the vulnerability of the children shown, leaving the audience with an imperative to make the moral choice for president of the United States.
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