Santorum for President–“Obamaville”

  • Ad Title:                                 “Obamaville”
  • Ad Sponsor:                            Santorum for President
  • Issue of Focus:                        Ramifications of Obama’s possible re-election
  • Type of Advertisement:         Negative
  • Genre:                                     Horror
  • Broadcast Locations:              Online advertisement; private, unlisted YouTube release
  • Release Date:                          March 23, 2012
  • Length:                                   60 seconds
  • Web Address:                         http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DApjHZq9o7M

 “Obamaville” Transcript

(Transcribed by Jessica Lu)

Voiceover: Imagine a small American town, two years from now, if Obama is re-elected. Small businesses are struggling, and families are worried about their jobs and their future. The wait to see a doctor is ever increasing, gas prices through the roof, and their freedom of religion under attack. And every day, the residents of this town must come to grips with the harsh reality that a rogue nation, and sworn American enemy, has become a nuclear threat. Welcome to a place where one president’s failed policies really hit home. Welcome to Obamaville—more than a town, a cautionary tale, coming soon to RickSantorum.com.

Analysis of “Obamaville”

Jessica Lu, University of Maryland

“Obamaville” in Context 

“Obamaville” was posted to the official YouTube channel of former 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum on March 23, 2012. As of April 14, 2012, the video was marked as private and unlisted. It currently does not appear in public search results or other public YouTube spaces. Only those with the video’s URL can access it for viewing. Billed as the first installment of an 8-part miniseries (Byers, 2012), “Obamaville” now reigns as the final major advertisement of Santorum’s presidential campaign, which he officially suspended on April 10, 2012.

Released in the midst of alleged pressure from conservative leaders to step aside in order to make way for the Republican front-runner, former Governor Mitt Romney, the negative advertisement reveals a darker, edgier side to the Santorum campaign (Jacobs, 2012). The 60-second spot warns of a world in which incumbent President Barack Obama is re-elected, focusing its bleak and foreboding narrative on Obamaville, a small town facing a horrific plight in the year 2014.

The advertisement draws upon both verbal and visual messages, recognizable from classic and contemporary horror films, to construct an unnerving dystopia. The horror theme, though common in political advertisements, is so extreme in “Obamaville” that it becomes hyperbolic. Though it likely reinforces anti-Obama sentiments among conservative voters, the exaggerated, almost-parodic horror mood of the “Obamaville” spot certainly targets Republican primary voters.

With political lines between left and right clearly drawn, Santorum’s chief challenge in this moment is not to defeat Obama, but to overcome the Republican frontrunner. With “Obamaville,” Santorum seeks to not only renew fervor among already right-leaning voters, but to associate that fervor with his candidacy alone.

Hyperbolic Horror in “Obamaville”: Verbal Message & Audio

From the opening clangor, “Obamaville” is positioned to strike fear in the hearts and minds of its viewers. Before the first words are spoken, we hear the screech of ravens and the minor keys of a piano that sound discordant. Altman (1986) reminds us that sound functions to both italicize and label a message; here, the soundtrack of “Obamaville” compels us to not only pay attention, but to brace ourselves for what is to come.

Reminiscent of familiar Hollywood horror trailers, the deep, gravelly tone of the narrator tells us to imagine a small American town as it will come to exist in the year 2014. The disembodied voice provides a frame from which we are to interpret the slideshow of eerie images we begin to see: a world in which Obama is re-elected is inevitably also a world in which businesses and families are struggling, the cost of oil and gasoline has skyrocketed, religious freedom is threatened, and a global nuclear threat has grown stronger. With one line, “a place where one president’s failed policies really hit home,” “Obamaville” attributes all of these foreboding crises to incumbent President Barack Obama.

Through its verbal message, “Obamaville” identifies its villain and sets out to warn its viewers of impending doom. The advertisement closes by reiterating that “Obamaville [is] more than a town, a cautionary tale.” Presumably with the gift of foresight, the Santorum campaign hopes to shed light on the repercussions of Obama’s re-election and, with these words, extends the “Obamaville” image beyond a small town to the nation as a whole. The problem of Obama’s re-election becomes a matter of not only national importance but more disturbingly of national security.

This threat to our security is only further enhanced by the eerie soundtrack as the spot plays on. In the brief moments of silence between the narrator’s words, we hear the creaking of abandoned playground equipment, the whistle of the wind as it rustles tree limbs and leaves, electric static and flashes, and the ticking hands of a clock. If nothing else, these sounds remind us of those most vulnerable moments when we find ourselves alone and suddenly wondering if we are in danger.

It is interesting to note that “Obamaville” lacks the standard verbal endorsement by its candidate. While most political advertisements, particularly those sponsored by an official campaign committee, either end or begin with an explicit expression of approval from the candidate, “Obamaville” instead opts to maintain its horror film mood. In fact, the advertisement forgoes political custom in favor of Hollywood traditions: the spot ends with its title splashed across the frame, and a teasing promise that more is “coming soon.”

The ominous verbal message of “Obamaville,” however, is perhaps overshadowed by the visual imagery meant to enhance it. In an interview with media correspondent David Folkenfilk, NPR guest host Laura Sullivan pointed out that “it’s not so much the words, it’s the images that struck you” (NPR, 2012). While Folkenfilk goes on to point out a few key moments in the spot, only a thorough frame-by-frame analysis of “Obamaville” reveals the lengths to which Santorum for President went in order to achieve such an detailed snapshot of dystopia. 

Hyperbolic Horror in “Obamaville”: Human Subjects

First, interspersed among the collection of eerie images in “Obamaville” are two types of human subjects: Obama’s victims and Obama’s allies.

Obama’s victims are those individuals depicted without motion or expression. Early on, we see a young couple standing in their kitchen as we hear that “families are worried about their jobs.” A young child sits alone on a bench, forlorn and forgotten. Later, we are positioned behind a well-dressed man holding a fueling nozzle to his right temple in an image we immediately liken to a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, as we are told that “gas prices [in Obamaville are] through the roof.” An elderly woman, modestly dressed and slouching in her chair, looks away from the camera. An older man looks ready for work as he grips a handle of a shovel in his gloved hands. A young man, professionally dressed in a black coat, sits on a concrete curb, a box full of papers and office supplies next to him. He holds a white piece of paper and we wonder, is it a termination notice? Another man, older, leaves his office carrying a similar cardboard box, this time with only a portfolio and a plant inside—an obvious sign that he has just been fired. Then, a shot of a middle-aged man, defeated and sitting alone with his elbows on his knees, appears before us. In the background, lit by a bedside lamp, we see a glass liquor bottle and a small glass tumbler. Finally, a man drives his car with one arm dangling through the open driver-side window, a cigarette between his fingers and a suspicious look on his face. With one eyebrow raised, we wonder what he is seeing that he does not like—or trust.

These are Obama’s victims, subject to the crises that his policies have imposed upon us. Though obviously human, they are depicted as despondent, brought to the brink of surrender by Obamaville. In these moments, the viewer is challenged to see Americans at their most vulnerable: young and able, but without hope for the future; aged, tired, and forgotten; overeager consumers at the mercy of foreign nations and skyrocketing fuel costs; unemployed and emasculated; drunk with depression; cynical and suspicious of all. With few exceptions, these human subjects are unmoving. The only animation to their bodies is that which is granted by the motion of the camera. Their faces are either hidden from the camera or eerily vacant. As we are confronted with their blank stares, we realize that there is no life in Obamaville. These despondent impressions are reinforced by the stillness of the photographic medium that offers a sense of permanence to such expressions of doom.

Juxtaposed with these lifeless figures, however, are images of human movement and activity. A woman’s bright red lips fill the frame as she brings a finger to them, shushing us as if to silence those who wish to reveal Obama’s deception. From above, we watch as men dressed in black suits and white dress shirts march from the top to the bottom of the frame. They are identical, even down to the hairstyle and cut, and we get the sense that they are nothing more than robots sent to do one man’s bidding. Images of Iranian protestors and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are curiously animated, as images of protest activity fill the frame. Finally, before a series of quick cuts, we see four businessmen laughing as they toast at a darkened dinner table.

These are Obama’s allies, those who benefit from his flawed policies while the rest of America suffers. Not only are they granted motion, but they are also depicted as having voice; the businessmen share a laugh, the protestors cry out, Ahmadinejad opens his mouth to speak, and an audible “shush” escapes the sexualized bright red lips of the unidentified woman. The viewer is presented with the foreboding possibility that in 2014 Obamaville, Americans have lost control, have lost their voice, and have essentially lost their will to live. In their place, only those that benefit from keeping Obama in power—brainwashed automatons, corrupt officials, greedy businessmen, and foreign powers—remain.

Hyperbolic Horror in “Obamaville”: Animals and Inanimate Objects

Just as “Obamaville” takes on the traditional Hollywood trailer-style script in the conclusion of its verbal narrative, it likewise adopts standard eerie images that predictably evoke feelings of fear and uneasiness.

For instance, the birds depicted throughout the spot most closely resemble the black raven or the crow. The raven has, of course, inspired creepy connotations since Edgar Allan Poe’s infamous narrative poem. The crow is most quickly recognized as a scavenger and consumer of carrion; as such, the presence of a crow implies the sinister presence of death. Birds, in general, maintain a curious place in contemporary culture, especially after Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror film, The Birds, demonized them as violent and deadly.

Other ominous images include nondescript, abandoned streets, complete with flickering lighting and wet leaves; a dark, seedy motel with its “Vacancy” sign; abandoned, dilapidated playground equipment; a single shoe lying in the grass, as the empty seats of an old swing set squeak in the background; an abandoned building, its windows and doors boarded up; an old portrait of a young, unidentified girl; an empty hospital bed; a wire birdcage half-hidden at the right edge of the frame, as it hangs in an elderly woman’s home; seemingly endless tiled hallways reminiscent of hospitals, mental institutions, or medical laboratories; dark trees, casting large shadows with their branches; a single flame, flickering before it is blown out; and a clock, its hands moving around its face quickly in accelerated time.

These images are recognizable from countless horror films and therefore evoke the same sensations. Though some may be connected to the verbal message of the spot (for instance, the empty hospital bed appears as we hear that “the wait to see a doctor is ever increasing” in Obamaville) others seem random, if not completely unrelated. For instance, the single shoe lying in the grass brings to mind horrific cases of kidnapping or abduction, when a child may be snatched from a playground and loses his or her shoe in the process. Though the thought is certainly unnerving—if not downright terrifying—there is no logical connection between the fallen shoe and another Obama presidential term. In another instance, we see the purchase price of gas rising as the camera zooms in on the pump of a fueling station. The shock of the price, as it reaches $90.00 and continues to rise, draws attention away from the number below. At the bottom edge of the frame, slowly disappearing from sight as the camera zooms in on the purchase price, the gallon count appears to be a five-digit number, with the first digit being a 3.  Finally, later in the spot, a hand holds a piece of paper that boldly declares, “Termination Notice.” Upon closer examination, however, the notice seems to be written in Latin. Clearly, “Obamaville” relies, at least in part, on the power of familiar eerie images in order to construct a horrific dystopia. However, when closer attention is paid to the individual stills, it becomes apparent that these images were chosen not for their logical connection to the message, but for the grim tone that they inspire. 

Hyperbolic Horror in “Obamaville”:  Camera Cuts and Flashes

As is obvious by the preceding analysis, the 60-second spot unleashes an impressive barrage of images and is only able to do so by making liberal use of camera cuts and split-second flashes. These visual injections add to the horror theme by keeping the viewer on the edge of his or her seat. The spot is unpredictable, as random moments are interrupted by some of the advertisement’s most disturbing images—a close-up of a faded black-and-white portrait of a young, unidentified girl; a masked surgeon, hands raised and seemingly reading an IV bag; a close-up of an elderly woman’s face, blank and expressionless; an angry rally in a foreign nation, the only discernible colors being the unmistakable green, white, and red of an Iranian flag in a sea of blurry faces; and moments later, the burning of an American flag. If the viewer blinks, he or she is likely to miss these quick images. However, they are so frequent throughout the advertisement that the mood of horror does not suffer.

Of course, one of the most interesting aspects of the “Obamaville” advertisement is found within these quick cuts. At 40 seconds, the frame focuses on a lone box television set, sitting on a carpeted floor. On the television screen, we see a still image of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, a small smirk on his face. For a split-second, his image is replaced with a profile shot of an also-smirking President Barack Obama, before the television reverts back to various images of Ahmadinejad. As the television set sits on the floor, it is surrounded by nothing but cables and wires and therefore nothing can account for the change in image. “Obamaville” then implies a likeness—if not a conflation—between the two political figures, suggesting that the danger Obama poses to the United States and the American people is just as serious, if not more so, as that which is posed by Iran.

It also is interesting to note that, at three separate times, the viewer is assaulted with a quick flash of a human eyeball. At 42 seconds, just as we hear that “a rogue nation…has become a nuclear threat,” we see a close-up of a human eye, so dark in color that we are able to see in its reflection a plane flying overhead. Later, in a series of extremely quick flashes 53 seconds into the advertisement, we see another extreme close-up of a human eye, this time grey in color. Finally, at 54 seconds, we receive the closest shot yet: the pupil fills almost the entire screen, with the whites of the eye accounting for only a third of the frame. In addition to the eeriness of the eyeball, depicted as if detached from its bodily counterparts, we get the sense that we are bearing witness to atrocities and therefore seeing them as real, rather than imagined. These are our eyes, as viewers, beholding not images, but a gruesome and horrific reality (Hariman & Lucaites, 2007).

It is also important to note the potential effect of montage within “Obamaville” as it contributes to the overall dystopian atmosphere. Through the use of such quick cuts and image flashes, the entire spot seems like a montage. However, there are two major instances of successive cutting: first, at 13 seconds and later, at 51 to 54 seconds. When slowed down for the purposes of a frame-by-frame analysis, these split-second shots reveal interesting choices. The second montage, in particular, lasts only three seconds but consists of 19 separate, discernible images. Among them is a pink ceramic container (an urn, pot, vase, or mug) as it shatters; a prison guard tower; a blonde woman, from the back, as she runs away from the camera and into a wooded area; white water crashing up against a rock jetty; pink, raw meat as it is extracted from a meat grinder; and part of a woman’s face, darkened in the right half of the frame, with the only noticeable feature being a deep cut in the middle of her lower lip.

The decontextualized nature of these photos demonstrates the careful selection of unrelated images for the purposes of constructing a holistic, hyperbolic horror theme. Stephens (1998) reminds us to be aware of the Kuleshov Effect, when “the meaning of a shot is dependent upon the shots that surround it… The point of montage… is that new meanings can be created through the juxtaposition of different shots” (p. 102). In “Obamaville,” these disparate—albeit eerie—images are fused together to inspire an irrational fear functioning at the conscious and unconscious level.

Hyperbolic Horror in “Obamaville”: Use of Color

Finally, the mood of hyperbolic horror in “Obamaville” is perpetually maintained by the advertisement’s strategic use of color. The entire 60-second spot has a blue-grey tint, minimizing light and instead favoring darkness. The absence of light, of course, highlights the overarching themes of fear, suspicion, and death. As a whole, “Obamaville” sustains a stark contrast between dark hues and quick flashes of bright color.

These bright colors, however, are also strategically chosen. The words “Closing Down” are written in bright red paint on a white, wooden sign. A woman’s lips are painted a deep blood-red. A quick flash of a masked surgeon is completely tinted red. A man threatens suicide by a fueling station nozzle, completely washed in yellow. A digital manipulation of the White House paints the iconic landmark in red and black. These two choices are symbolic, as red reminds us of bloodshed and death, while yellow warns us of hazardous threats. Even in color, saturation, and tint, the advertisement attempts to evoke anxiety and paranoia. In Obamaville, the world is awash with danger and the only proper response is fear.

Response to “Obamaville” and Other Commentary

The “Obamaville” spot was released via private posting to the official Rick Santorum YouTube channel on March 23, 2012. Despite not being listed in any of YouTube’s public spaces (including search results, suggested/related videos, or Rick Santorum’s own public channel page) and remaining accessible only through direct link, the advertisement has been viewed 558,342 times at the time of this writing. Interestingly, the original video has received only 1,315 “likes,” as compared to its 16,561 “dislikes.”

On YouTube alone, the advertisement has garnered an impressive response. Apparently frustrated by the disabled commenting feature on the original video, YouTube users have uploaded versions of the advertisement in order to enable commentary. Moreover, a quick YouTube search of the keyword “Obamaville” reveals that users’ uploaded video reactions to the spot—some parodic and others angry, disgusted, or amused.

With the help of various blogs and news outlets, the advertisement has entered the arena of public debate beyond YouTube. The first full week following its release, the advertisement claimed the top spot of “most-watched online political advertising videos,” with views jumping 160 percent (Hanrahan, 2012).

As argued earlier in this analysis, the exaggerated horror theme of “Obamaville” fails to dissuade Obama supporters and, perhaps, has even intensified feelings of antagonism and disgust towards Santorum. Online columnist Nicole Fabian-Weber (2012) writes of the ad, “People are actually taking this man seriously. Well, they were. They totally won’t be after seeing his hilarious new ‘Obamaville’ ad spot in which he tries to scare the bejeezus out of all of us. It’s like Santorum is parodying himself. Except that he’s not. He’s just being himself. And, honestly, that’s the scariest thing of all. With or without an eerie soundtrack and a raven.”

Not surprisingly, one of the most discussed aspects of the advertisement is the apparent conflation between President Barack Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Both Santorum’s spokesman Hogan Gidley and “Obamaville” producer/media consultant John Brabender defended the advertisement against such claims. Gidley, in an interview with Politico’s Dylan Byers, dismissed the allegations as:

 “ridiculous. He’s the president of the United States, Ahmadinejad is the president of our sworn enemy…We’d be a lot more deliberate if that’s what we were trying to do… The bottom line is, the campaign is making a point that Barack Obama is wrong for the country. He’s wrong on foreign policy, he’s wrong on domestic issues. That’s basically what the ad is trying to say, in a horror story fashion.”

When further pressed about the quick juxtaposition of photos, however, Gidley responded, “I don’t even know. I need to go and look at this ad, because I don’t really remember the part you’re talking about. I’ll call you back” (Byers, 2012).

In defense of its advertisement, the Santorum camp seems to have its own wires crossed. Brabender disagreed with Gidley’s categorization of “Obamaville” as a horror story, saying, “That would be a gross over exaggeration. It’s not meant to be something horrific. It’s simply meant to state our belief, projecting into the future, that if Iran successfully gets a nuclear weapon, there will be a constant conflict, back and forth, on a regular basis, between the United States and Iran.” Of the quick cutting between images of Ahmadinejad and Obama, Brabender explained, “The intent was to show that there will be a constant threat back and forth between the United States if they have nuclear capability. To see [a conflation of Obama and Ahmadinejad] would be to see something that was not intended to be there in any way” (Byers, 2012).

Regardless of such responses from the Santorum campaign, pundits still denounce what they view to be an unfair comparison, with some seizing an opportunity to condemn Republican campaign tactics. In an email to subscribers and supporters, the Democratic National Committee slams “Obamaville” as “vicious… a new low as far as campaign ads go.” The rebuke becomes an occasion for fundraising. The email continues: “If this is what the candidates are doing before one of them even becomes the nominee, you can expect Karl Rove and the Republican Super PACs to be even more out of line in the general election. So if you’re fed up with this fear mongering as I am, fight it, and give to the party that’ll hit back every time” (Schultheis, 2012).

The DNC has also released a video spot in response to “Obamaville,” posted on its own DemRapidResponse YouTube channel on March 28, 2012. That spot, titled “Sworn American Enemy,” can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvAOoBiJ0mE.

References

Altman, R. (1986). “Television/sound.” In T. Modleski (Ed.), Studies in entertainment: Critical approaches to mass culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Byers, D. (2012, March 23). Santorum spokesman denies Obama-Ahmadinejad conflation in new ad. Politico. Retrieved from             http://www.politico.com/blogs/media/2012/03/santorum-spokesperson-refutes-obamaahmadinejad-conflation-118509.html.

Fabian-Weber, N. (2012, March 26). Rick Santorum’s creepy “Obamaville” spot isn’t serious…right? The Stir. Retrieved from             http://thestir.cafemom.com/in_the_news/135104/rick_santorums_creepy_obamaville_spot.

Hanrahan, T. (2012). “Obamaville” takes top political-ad spot. The Wall Street Journal Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2012/04/02/obamaville-takes-top-political-ad-spot/.

Hariman, R., & Lucaites, J. L. (2007). No caption needed: Iconic photographs, public culture, and liberal democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jacobs, S. P. (2012, March 27). Rick Santorum’s campaign shows dark side with “Obamaville” apocalypse advert. National Post. Retrieved from             http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/03/27/rick-santorums-campaign-starts-to-show-its-       dark-side/?__lsa=4f553d35.

NPR. (2012, March 24). Dissecting Santorum’s ominous “Obamaville” ad. Transcript. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2012/03/24/149304418/dissecting-santorums-            ominous-obamaville-ad.

Santorum for President. Obamaville [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DApjHZq9o7M.

Schultheis, E. (2012, March 28). DNC fundraises off Santorum “Obamaville” ad. Politico. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/blogs/burns-haberman/2012/03/dnc-fundraises-off-santorum-obamaville-ad-118968.html.

Stephens, M. (1998). The rise of the image, the fall of the word. New York: Oxford University Press.