Romney for President, “Growing Up”

  • Title: “Growing Up”
  • Sponsor: Romney for President, Inc.
  • Issue of Focus: American economy, auto industry and government bailouts
  • Type of Advertisement: Mixed (attacks Obama and “Liberals” and portrays Romney positively)
  • Broadcast Location: Michigan
  • Release Date: February 14, 2012
  • Length: 30-second spot
  • Web Address: http://www.mittromney.com/embed/video/growing-up

“Growing Up” Script

Mitt Romney: Now, when I grew up in Michigan, it was exciting to be here. I remember going to the Detroit Auto Show with my dad. That was a big deal. How in the world did an industry and its leaders and its unions get in such a fix that they lost jobs—that they lost their future? President Obama did all these things that the Liberals have wanted to do for years, and the fact that you’ve got millions of Americans out of work, home values collapsing. People here in Detroit are distressed. I want to make Michigan stronger and better. Michigan’s been my home, and this is personal. I’m Mitt Romney and I approve this message.”

Analysis of “Growing Up”

Jade Olson, University of Maryland

The Context of “Growing Up”

“Growing Up” is an advertisement targeted specifically to Michigan voters that began airing exactly two weeks prior to the February 28, 2012 Michigan Republican primary. Romney’s somewhat complicated relationship with his home state frames the target audience’s perceptions of the ad. As a “native son” of Michigan whose father George Romney served as governor in the 1960s, his ties to the state provide an electoral advantage for him among Michigan voters. However, his vocal stance against automotive industry bailouts and unions goes squarely against the values of many Michiganders. Specifically, Romney came under fire for his 2008 New York Times opinion article, entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” In the article, Romney argues that “managed bankruptcy” is the most desirable course of action for the Big Three automakers (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) who at the time were in serious financial trouble and demonstrating an inability to compete with international auto manufacturers like Toyota. Michigan’s history, economy, and identity are largely defined by the automotive industry, and so to advocate that the federal government turn its back on this industry and let the Motor City go bankrupt was read by some from the state as a marker of anti-Michigan sentiment (Dreyer).

As more time was given in the news cycle to Romney’s 2008 anti-bailout advocacy, public opinion polls began showing a more substantial decrease in support for him among polled Michigan voters. Romney, who before was projected to win the primary comfortably, ended up nearly tied with Rick Santorum by Election Day (Silver). “Growing Up” works to situate Romney clearly as a Michigander who supports the automotive industry, despite his anti-bailout discourse in 2008. It shifts the blame for the industry’s recent woes to President Obama and other unnamed “Liberals,” and infers that the bailout against which Romney advocated had been unsuccessful, thus working to mitigate the politically detrimental implications of his past rhetoric.

Ad Assumptions

The advertisement serves chiefly to situate Romney as an average Michigander with consistent and correct opinions about economic recovery, and particularly about the United States automotive industry’s role therein. “Growing Up” assumes that the American automotive industry is one of the nation’s most important economic entities, and that Americans feel a sense of pride and patriotism about automobiles—specifically ones manufactured domestically. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the development of engines and ultimately the automobile have influenced American cultural identity by representing individuality, autonomy, upward mobility, hard work, family, and prosperity (Seiler).

The ad also accesses a metonymic association between the industry and the city of Detroit that has been well-established throughout U.S. cultural history. Interestingly, “Growing Up” debuted only days after a new installment of Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” advertising campaign premiered during the Super Bowl. Both ads access many of the same assumptions about the American automotive industry and Detroit as markers of cultural identity. In the Chrysler ad, Clint Eastwood (with his trademark rugged, masculine, patriotic American persona) argues that the United States can recover from its recession in the same way that Detroit recovered from the automotive industry crisis. This advertisement emphasizes the same themes of patriotism and pride in vehicles manufactured in the United States: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PE5V4Uzobc. Interestingly, the Chrysler ad, which turns on the same assumptions about the automobile industry and the bailout, was criticized for its perceived liberal, pro-Obama message (Lee).

The ad also assumes awareness of Romney’s controversial opposition to the federal government’s funding of the automotive industry. Romney came under fire for his opposition to the governmental “bailout,” and although a majority of Republican primary voters agreed with his stance, it drew significant ire from critics, including local workers and their families (Agiesta). This controversy has framed the campaign, and both Republicans and Democrats addressed it directly via television ads in Michigan in the weeks prior to the primary. For example, see the Democratic National Committee’s treatment of Romney’s stance:

Ad Content: Romney as Populist Candidate

“Growing Up” operates as a key text not just in Romney’s campaign in Michigan, but also for his attempts to disarm criticisms that identify him as a wealthy elitist. He struggled, for example, to “identify with regular Americans” in the wake of the public release of his 2011 tax returns, which showed that he and his wife made millions of dollars off of investments last year alone (Vogel). Depictions of Romney as financially out-of-touch with most Americans continued, fueled by what some saw as campaign gaffes when Romney’s asserted that “I like being able to fire people” and “my wife drives a couple of Cadillacs” (Randall).

“Growing Up” works to depict Romney as a populist candidate who understands average Michiganders, marking him as “ordinary” (Grabe and Bucy, 107-108). The ad shows dated footage with a “home movie” aesthetic, ostensibly from his childhood, of children happily running toward a car pulling up in the driveway of a middle-class neighborhood. This imagery evokes a cultural trope: the simple joy of greeting one’s family members at the end of the workday. Using a sharper film style and production quality to denote the present day, the ad then shows Romney casually driving around a similar suburban neighborhood while he talks before the camera in a conversational style. The camera’s height, angle and proximity to Romney simulate the perspective of his passenger, so that viewers feel as though he is talking to them personally in the intimate setting of his car.

The populist dimensions of Romney’s narrative are furthered through his use of plain and idiomatic language that helps enact the discursive style of everyday Americans in conversation. He echoes the incredulity of many Americans contemplating the United States macroeconomic landscape. He asks accordingly, “how in the world did an industry  . . . get in such a fix that they lost jobs—that they lost their future?” The use of the word “fix” to refer to a problem as complex as the auto industry’s collapse, as well as the colloquial, “how in the world,” animate his speech as that of everyday Americans.

Ad Content: Constructing Romney as Authentic Michigander

The same way that his campaign has been plagued by a tension between characterizations of Romney as an out-of-touch elitist versus that of an ordinary, middle-class family man also reflects his struggle to define himself as an authentic Michigander. After a series of perplexing remarks asserting that the state’s “trees are the right height” and that the “inland lakes” are underappreciated compared to the Great Lakes (Zornick), the footage of his stumbling, awkward praise of Michigan went viral, prompting satirists and pundits to comment on its perceived insincerity (see, for example, Michael Moore and Rachel Maddow poking fun at Romney’s remarks: http://video.msnbc.msn.com/the-rachel-maddow-show/46459096). One blogger said, “it is imperative that Romney connect with voters. But it is without doubt he is far more comfortable dispensing information in analytical bits and statistical percentages than in dealing with the regular phenomena of everyday life that might impact the average person” (Byrd). Romney’s populist appeals come out sounding stilted and forced—a challenge faced by Al Gore, another wealthy son of a prominent politician who attempted to construct a populist persona in the 2000 presidential election (Erickson 101). Romney’s strange and flat professions of love for Michigan’s trees, lakes, and cars are repeatedly marked as inauthentic, and with them, so is his campaign persona.

Romney has struggled to embody multiple markers of political authenticity. Most notable among these are questions of consistency among political perspectives and geographic identification (Parry-Giles). “Growing Up” attempts to counter these perceptions by imposing consistency on his seemingly contradictory past stances and by marking him as a true Michigander.

One way the ad’s creators address his authenticity dilemma is by reconciling Romney’s pro-bankruptcy position on Detroit with his articulated care for the state by framing the bailouts as ineffective. Romney as narrator argues that “President Obama did all these things that the Liberals have wanted to do for years, and the fact that you’ve got millions of Americans out of work, home values collapsing. People here in Detroit are distressed.” Here, it is clear from the context—archival footage of workers leaving a Chrysler factory en masse, a streamlined shot of dilapidated suburban homes, a stark shot of grey skies over a 1950s-era building with a “Motor City” sign—that “all of these things” refer to the federal government’s economic intervention into the auto industry. Romney’s monologue situates him in contrast to Obama and the Liberals because Romney wants “to make Michigan stronger and better.” The argument is implied through the coupling of the negative images of Michigan with Romney’s critique of the president and his fellow Liberals. By linking Michigan’s current economic challenges and their impacts on families and communities to Obama’s policies, both visually and aurally, the ad establishes Romney’s seemingly contradictory positions (a love of Michigan on the one hand and a call to “let Detroit go bankrupt” on the other) as actually one consistent policy—a bit of economic “tough love” for Michigan. The attacks on Obama also mark this component of the ad as a negative or attack ad, particularly in the historical context of the bailout timeline, which began during George W. Bush’s presidency rather than Obama’s first years in office.

Second, the ad works to establish Romney as a real Michigander with a personal stake in what happens to the state in the coming years. He uses older-looking photographs as a form of proof, symbolically situating him in his home state. He sits in the driver’s seat of a car as a boy, he poses in his living room with his future wife, he looks out on an auto show with his father. He tells the audience that “this is personal,” offering that “Michigan has been [his] home.” The syntax of this sentence skirts the fact that, although he was born in Michigan and his father was governor for six years, Romney has not lived in Michigan since he went off to school more than forty years ago. The ad’s construction of Romney as Michigan’s native son can be viewed in light of public perceptions of his flight from Michigan, as many voters are unaware of the Romney family’s historical connections to the state (Coppins).

Reactions to “Growing Up”

Mitt Romney narrowly won the Michigan Republican primary. And, “Growing Up” backfired in multiple ways. Almost immediately after its release, fact checking organizations and bloggers went to work searching for inconsistencies and flaws in the piece. They found at least two. First, observers in the blogosphere noticed something peculiar about the photograph ostensibly depicting Romney and his father at the Detroit Auto Show. This photograph appears in the ad at the same time that Romney fondly recalls, “I remember going to the Detroit Auto Show with my dad.” In fact, the photograph depicts the men looking out on the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York from a helipad (Lewison). Not only does this work against the ad’s positioning of Romney as a Detroit car aficionado, but it also ironically undoes the ad’s positioning of Romney as an average person—he is shown as part of a political dynasty (next to his father, the current Michigan governor when the photo was taken) in a position of privilege, literally above the average people attending the fair.

Second, it was revealed in the days following the ad’s debut that the sedan in which Romney tours an economically depressed suburb is not actually an American car at all (Linkins). The vehicle, a 2012 Chrysler 300, is the product of a United States company, but was actually manufactured in a Brampton, Ontario plant owned by the Chrysler Group. Like the realization that the auto show photograph depicts an event hundreds of miles from Detroit, the car’s Canadian origin serves to ironically destabilize the ad’s symbolic work of situating Romney as a native Michigander and proud supporter of products that are, in the words of Chrysler, “imported from Detroit.”

The ad also drew criticism based on its tenor and perceived purpose in addition to the questionable veracity of its claims. On The Daily Show, host Jon Stewart sarcastically referred to the ad as “brilliant,” and identified its purpose quite clearly: “to make Michigan voters forget that entire article,” referring to “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-february-16-2012/indecision-2012—mitt-romney-s—rick-santorum-s-michigan-campaign-ads.

Stewart’s analysis confirmed that the same challenges to Romney’s populist persona continue to exist. Stewart mocked its emotional tenor (referring to Romney’s difficulties with sincerity), and made it clear that the ad does not simply erase public perception of Romney as an elite figure: “of course, with all things Romney, there are some caviars—I’m sorry, caveats!” These reactions indicate that issues of authenticity and perceived elitism will continue to dog the Romney campaign in future primaries and, even into the 2012 presidential election if he indeed becomes the nominee as anticipated.

Works Cited

Agiesta, Jennifer. “4 in 10 back auto bailout in Michigan GOP primary.” Deseret News. February 28,   2012. http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765555087/4-in-10-back-auto-bailout-in-Michigan-GOP-primary.html.

Byrd, Normal. “Video Shows Romneybot Near Implosion Loving Trees, Lakes, and Cars.” Huliq. February 21, 2012. http://www.huliq.com/12092/video-shows-romneybot-near-implosion-loving-trees-lakes-and-cars.

Coppins, McKay. “Mitt Romney Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” BuzzFeed. February 27, 2012.   http://www.buzzfeed.com/mckaycoppins/mitt-romney-doesnt-live-here-anymore.

Dreyer, Rachael. “Automotive History.” Bentley Historical Library. July 2009.             http://bentley.umich.edu/research/guides/automotive/.

Erickson, Keith V. “Presidential Rhetoric’s Visual Turn: Performance Fragments and the Politics of Illusionism.” In Visual Rhetoric: A Reader in Communication and American Culture. Edited by Lester C. Olson, Cara A. Finnegan and Diane S. Hope. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Grabe, Maria Elizabeth and Erik Page Bucy. Image Bite Politics: News and the Visual Framing of Elections. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Keyes, Scott. “Romney’s ‘Growing Up’ Michigan Ad Features Pictures of Mitt Atop Helipad at New York World Fair.” ThinkProgress. February 16, 2012.             http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2012/02/16/426988/mitt-romney-michigan-ad-helipad/?mobile=nc.

Lee, MJ. “Clint Eastwood Super Bowl Ad made Obama’s day, blogs say.” Politico. February 6, 2012. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0212/72501.html.

Lewison, Jed. “Oops! Mitt Romney’s new Michigan ad uses picture of him in New York to prove he grew up in Detroit.” The Daily Kos. February 16, 2012.             http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/02/16/1065344/-Oops-Mitt-Romney-s-new-Michigan-ad-uses-picture-of-him-in-New-York-to-prove-he-grew-up-in-Detroit.

Linkins, Jason. “Mitt Romney, ‘Son of Detroit,’ Tools Around Michigan in Car Manufactured in Canada.” The Huffington Post. February 15, 2012.             http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/15/mitt-romney-detroit_n_1279565.html.

Maddow, Rachel. “February 14.” The Rachel Maddow Show. February 14, 2012. New York, NY: MSNBC.

Parry-Giles, Shawn J. “Political Authenticity, Television News, and Hillary Rodham Clinton.” In Politics, Discourse and American Society: New Agendas. Edited by Roderick P. Hart and Bartholomew Sparrow, pp. 211-227. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2001.

Randall, Eric. “Ann Romney Drives ‘A Couple of Cadillacs,’ Says Mitt.” The Atlantic Wire. February 24, 2010. http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2012/02/ann-romney-drives-couple-cadillacssays-mitt/49143/ .

Romney, Mitt. “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, November 18, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/19/opinion/19romney.html.

Seiler, Cotten. Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Silver, Nate. “After Many Momentum Shifts, Michigan is Too Close to Call.” The New York Times, FiveThirtyEight, February 28, 2008. http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/28/after-many-momentum-shifts-michigan-too-close-to-call/.

Vogel, Kenneth. “Mitt Romney tax returns: Five reasons they matter.” Politico. January 23, 2012.   http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0112/71855.html.

Zornick, George. “Michigan Tree Experts Stumped by Romney Claims.” The Nation. February 24,   2012. http://www.thenation.com/blog/166454/michigan-tree-experts-stumped-romney-claims.