Santorum for President, “Rombo”

“Rombo” Transcript

Rick Santorum: I’m Rick Santorum, and I approve this message.

Voiceover: Mitt Romney’s negative attack machine is back, on full throttle. This time, Romney’s firing his mud at Rick Santorum. Romney and his Super PAC have spent a full $20 million, mostly attacking fellow Republicans. Why? Because Romney’s trying to hide from his big government Romneycare and his support for job-killing cap-and-trade. And in the end, Mitt Romney’s ugly attacks are going to backfire.

Analysis of “Rombo”

Jessica Lu, University of Maryland

“Rombo” Context

Throughout the volatile 2012 Republican primary race, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has demonstrated a strategic use of negative advertising. With the help of the pro-Romney super-PAC, Restore our Future, the Romney campaign twice launched “hundreds” of negative advertisements targeting former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, following Gingrich’s surprise successes in Iowa and South Carolina (Moore, 2012). In both cases, Romney snatched victories in the subsequent primaries, in both New Hampshire and Florida, and has continued to incorporate negative advertising in his campaign for the Republican presidential primary. As the Michigan primary contest drew near, Romney’s opponents, along with political analysts and pundits, began to criticize his mudslinging tactics (Moore, 2012). Drawing upon arguments that the negative advertising would actually hurt his campaign, challenger Rick Santorum prepared for the onslaught of attacks ads with “Rombo,” a negative spot of his own. 

“Rombo” Content

As the Santorum campaign prepared to preemptively defend its candidate against the coming attacks from Romney, it faced an ironic challenge: criticizing the use of negative ads with a negative ad. Theoretically, doing so would be hypocritical and, therefore, ineffective among Michigan voters. The “Rombo” ad, however, brilliantly manages to launch a negative attack on Romney—for his negative attacks on everyone else—in such a way that the viewer is not immediately confronted with its hypocrisy. Instead, the cheeky comparison of Romney to Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo is enhanced by music, strategic camerawork, and limited argumentative claims in order to maintain a whimsical, light-hearted tone uncharacteristic of most attack ads.

The premise of the ad is simple. Following the requisite Santorum approval, we meet “Rombo,” a convenient allusion to the action hero, Rambo. The Romney look-alike enters an abandoned warehouse toting a paintball gun and wearing a look of fierce determination. Immediately, Rombo’s professional attire contrasts with the musty building and the threatening weapon; the viewer gets the sense that he does not belong and will surely not measure up to the success of the real Rambo. Sure enough, the look-alike patrols the warehouse, firing mud at cardboard targets of a smiling Rick Santorum as they pop up around corners and behind columns. Astonishingly, Rombo never lands a single shot, as the mud misses the Santorum target each time. When Rombo’s gun jams, it backfires, splattering brown mud all over Rombo’s crisp white shirt.

The ad itself achieves its purpose by avoiding the serious tone characteristic of attack ads. For the “attacking-him-for-attacking-us” message to be received without accusations of hypocrisy or double-standards, Santorum had to resist explicitly condemning Romney’s character, record, or campaign. As such, the advertisement’s verbal messages are limited; while the narrator briefly mentions Romneycare and cap-and-trade, those issues are not brought up in detail or depth. Instead of close-up camera shots that attempt to reveal or scrutinize character through a close- range view of a candidate’s face, a common visual tactic in political ads and news (Parry-Giles, 2000), we instead see medium and long-range shots that advance the message of the simple Rambo-Rombo comparison. And in accordance with Altman’s (1986) discussion of the labeling and italicizing functions of sound, the upbeat, familiar tune of Bizet’s “Carmen Overture” resists a somber, dramatic tone and instead marks the advertisement as light-hearted or even parodic. Upon first glance, at least, this whimsical tone masks the more negative and hypocritical messages at the heart of the ad.

Upon closer analysis, however, the camerawork and visuals reveal the more serious criticisms embedded in the surface comparison between Rambo and Rombo. In the ad’s use of mainly medium and long-range shots, it is important to note that the few medium-range shots are centered around Romney’s face (5 seconds, 23 seconds, and 25 seconds into the advertisement) or his shoes (6 seconds into the advertisement). In these moments, the viewer takes in the image of Romney as fierce and determined, yet almost laughable in his exaggerated portrayal of Rombo dressed up in a suit rather than macho military gear. He hides behind shadowy corners just as he symbolically hides behind issues, and he emerges only to fire shots at his opponents, quickly ducking for cover. As the camera focuses in on his shoes, we see Rombo walking at a brisk pace, suggesting that Romney will do whatever it takes, surging forward with relentless negative attacks in order to take down his opponents in more cowardly ways.

Interestingly enough, Rombo fails to take down Santorum. His metaphoric mudslinging is read as a futile attempt to attack his opponents without any real ammunition, suggesting that Romney’s claims are baseless, harmless, and literally off-the-mark. Also notable is the camera’s focus on the mud as it lands on the walls and surfaces behind the target; Romney always fires multiple shots, seemingly haphazardly and at will, suggesting that he fires aimlessly with little likelihood of success rather than with actual purpose and precision. The camera angles, however, make it almost impossible to judge the difficulty of actually landing a shot. As the frame switches between shots of Rombo firing and glimpses of the Santorum target, the viewer is left with two possible conclusions: either Santorum is an easy target that Romney still cannot manage to defeat with his mudslinging, or Santorum is a difficult target because his candidacy is built upon a solid record of achievement. With either interpretation, Romney is characterized as the inferior, if not an inept, choice.

In the final moments of the spot, Rombo is splattered with his own mud. As the brown substance covers his clothing, we see Romney taking on the qualities of his own ammunition—unsubstantiated, harmless, and messy—reinforcing a characterization of Romney as a lackluster candidate with no credible record aside from a business resume. Ultimately, his attempts to defeat his opponents backfire, exposing his own inadequacy.

By making a visual mockery of Rombo, as an inadequate, less skilled Rambo, the Santorum campaign manages to veil extremely negative messages of Romney in a seemingly light-hearted, entertaining way.

“Rombo” Response and Commentary

In less than a month after its debut, the “Rombo” advertisement had been viewed over 466,000 times on YouTube and has received mixed reviews. The range of commentary only continues to popularize the ad, which has been dubbed an “instant classic” on the merits of its visuals alone that are coupled with weak verbal claims (Jacobson, 2012). Others have argued that the Rambo/Rombo comparison is too silly to be taken seriously. And quite a few bloggers and analysts have pointed out the ambiguity of the brown substance as a not-so-subtle, and childish, trick (Harris, 2012). Those same jokes made their way into a spoof of the “Rombo” ad, which aired on Jimmy Kimmel’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (“Jimmy Kimmel Spoofs,” 2012).

Meanwhile, Romney continues to use negative advertising as a strategic campaign tactic. As recently as March 8, 2012, it was reported that the Restore our Future super-PAC spent $2.7 million on negative ad buys targeting Santorum in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Illinois (Overby, 2012, “Romney superPAC”). However, analysts have noted that such negative messages constitute “a tone that no candidate [can] sustain… Romney’s juggernaut of negative ads looks like a weakness… the big spending has trashed his opponents, often in lopsided spending battles, but hasn’t done anything to improve Romney’s favorable ratings” (Overby, 2012, “Romney’s wins”).

In response to the ad, Mitt Romney has been quoted saying, “He was the first person in the campaign to run negative ads, attacking me. He did that through his campaign in South Carolina, his [super] PAC also ran negative ads against me, and then he’s got the most negative ad I’ve seen, so far—the one attacking me for attacking him” (Well, 2012). In another interview, he says, “That’s the nature of politics, which is that you always accuse the other guy of what you’re doing yourself” (Camia, 2012).

References

Altman, R. (1986). “Television/Sound.” In Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture. Edited by Tania Modleski. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Camia, C. (2012, February 5). Santorum’s “Rombo” ad fires mud at Romney. USA Today. Retrieved from http://content.usatoday.com/communities/onpolitics/post/2012/02/rick-santorum-rombo-ad-mitt-romney-/1#.T10TORyH9Eh.

Harris, P. (2012, February 21). Rick Santorum’s mud ad sticks it to Mitt Romney. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2012/feb/21/rick-santorum-mud-ad-sticks-romney.

Jacobson, L. (2012, February 14). In “Rombo” ad, Rick Santorum says Mitt Romney adviser equated Massachusetts health care law with Obama’s. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved from http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/feb/16/rick-santorum/rombo-ad-rick-santorum-says-mitt-romney-adviser-eq/.

Jimmy Kimmel spoofs Rick Santorum’s ‘Rombo’ ad. (2012, February 16). The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/16/jimmy-kimmel-spoofs-rick-sanoturm-rombo_n_1282614.html.

Moore, M. T. (2012, February 9). Romney’s negative ads could cost him voters. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/politics/story/2012-02-09/mitt-romney-negative-ads-super-pac/53032978/1

Overby, P. (2012, March 6). Romney’s wins have come with negative messages. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2012/03/06/148006655/romneys-wins-have-come-with-negative-messages

Overby, P. (2012, March 8). Romney superPAC spends millions on negative ads. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2012/03/08/148246578/romney-superpac-still-spending-millions-on-negative-ads

Parry-Giles, S. (2000). Mediating Hillary Rodham Clinton: Television news practices and image-making in the postmodern age. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 17(2), 205-226.

Well, D. (2012, February 17). Romney on Santorum’s Rombo ad: “Most negative I’ve seen.” Newsmax. Retrieved from http://www.newsmax.com/Politics/Michigan-Arizona-primary-ad/2012/02/17/id/429785