Jeff Merkley for Senate, “Garage”

Transcribed by Lauren Hunter

Script

Male Narrator: Here in Oregon, you find champions in the strangest places. Take Jeff Merkley: a dad who still struggles to clean the garage, with two kids in Oregon public schools, a wife who works as a nurse, and always a champion for the middle class. Sure, these days Jeff puts on a suit when he goes to work for Oregon, but he’s never forgotten his own middle-class roots. Because he never left.

Jeff Merkley: I’m Jeff Merkley, and I approve this message.

Analysis of “Garage”

Lauren Hunter, University of Maryland 

Ad Context

In the 2014 midterm elections, the U.S. Senate race in Oregon is looking rather lopsided. Initially considered a high-stakes battle for control of the U.S. Senate, incumbent Democrat Jeff Merkley has recently benefited from “damaging personal revelations and many campaign missteps by his leading opponent, Republican Monica Wehby.”[1] Wehby, a Portland pediatric neurosurgeon with “moderate positions on abortion and gay marriage,” was once seen as a fierce challenger to a seasoned Merkley.[2] But accusations of vague policy positions and an unstable personal life drew heat to the political newcomer from opponents and the press; Merkley of course pounced on every fault. Although the Freedom Partners super PAC and oil tycoon Koch brothers withdrew their support from Wehby in September, the Merkley campaign continued to frame Wehby as an opponent of environmental legislation who sided with the wealthy. In his ad, “Garage,” Merkley reinforced his campaign slogan—“working for the middle class”—and reinforced his identity as a workingman.

Ad Content

Through juxtaposed imagery, Jeff Merkley is illustrated as a hero for the “everyman.” This ordinary hero not only understands his constituents’ particular problems, but shares in them, and seeks to help them resolve their problems. In this analysis, I explore the language and visuality of “Garage” as it seeks to legitimate Merkley’s middle-class identity and symbolic proximity to voters.

I begin this analysis by first defining symbolic proximity. Proximity explores a closeness of a representative’s identity to his or her constituent’s identity. A political candidate’s image becomes important in fostering a shared identity with constituents. Throughout history, rulers have considered their outward appearance as part of politics. According to Jean-Pascal Daloz, great importance is attached “to the paraphernalia of government and prestige goods” that makes status explicit.[3] I argue that with the manifestation of democratic ideals, the political image has been fundamentally transformed to narrow the symbolic gap between rulers and the ruled.[4] The goal is to foster a sense of psychological connectedness between candidates and voters. Symbolic proximity helps achieve such feelings of connectedness. Daloz categorizes symbolic proximity into five types: “geographical, social, concrete, patronizing, and modest.”[5] I will discuss each of these types as they manifest within the ad and seek to legitimize Merkley’s candidacy.

First, Merkley establishes geographical proximity. The ad opens on a nonspecific suburban neighborhood. A male narrator provides the location as somewhere in Oregon, and comments that “here…you can find champions in the strangest places.” The camera simultaneously pans across the scene, presumably searching for the hidden hero living among the ordinary citizens of suburbia. It then cuts to a view of two garage doors opening. In one doorway stands Jeff Merkley – hands on hips, as if some suburban superman. In the other doorway, equally as prominent, is his name in large type. In that first moment Merkley has established his geographical proximity. Depicting Merkley at his modest home, in an unidentified Oregon neighborhood, communicates to the audience “I am among you, I live here, I am present.”[6] Although Merkley’s roots are local, the lack of identifiable location suggests his commitment to furthering the region’s interests.

Next, Merkley establishes his social proximity. The narrator describes Merkley as “a dad who still struggles to clean the garage.” The camera shoots from within the garage and below Merkley as he sets a cardboard box on a shelf. In keeping with the super hero imagery, slow motion editing is used to dramatize Merkley’s movements. From the first moment of the ad, the accompanying music seems taken straight from the latest Marvel comic movie. It is the soundtrack of the hero as he prepares for combat. As Merkley battles for the cleanliness of his domain, dust swells in slow motion from the surface of the shelf. The visuality and language of the shot communicates, “I am like you.” Merkley fights the good fight for a clean garage just like every other ordinary homeowner. The language of the scene is of particular focus as Jeff Merkley is first identified as “a dad.” The indefinite article, combined with the universal identifier of modern fatherhood (a dad), features Merkley’s shared identity with the viewer: “I am one of you.”

Social proximity reappears in the ad as Merkley is depicted making sandwiches for his teenaged daughter, finding his wife’s keys as she hurries to work, and cooking burgers on the grill with his son. Each scene uses slow motion editing to underline the elevation of the ordinary to the extraordinary. The everyday details of being a father, husband, and man are equated to greatness. Daily life of the American middle class is raised to heroic levels with the comic hero soundtrack continuing in the background. In these scenes, Merkley demonstrates his concrete proximity. He is home to participate in the daily life of his family. He is accessible to help those in need. Merkley communicates, “I am available, I am listening” to Oregon voters.

Patronizing proximity manifests in a tight shot of Merkley tying his necktie.[7] The narrator comments that Merkley now “wears a suit” when he “goes to work for Oregon.” This reminds the viewer that while Merkley is a political elite, he is putting his privileged resources at the disposal of his constituency. The suit is an emblem of his status, but it is prestige that is used for the benefit of Oregon. Merkley communicates, “though I am above you, I am with you.”

Lastly, modest proximity materializes in the final moments of the advertisement.[8] Following the patronizing shot of the necktie, Merkley reappears in his “everyman” attire. The camera is trained on Merkley as he plays ping-pong in his garage with an unknown opponent. Slow motion and the super hero soundtrack modify the image and its portrayal of Merkley as the elevated everyday man. The narrator clarifies that Merkley has “never forgotten his own middle class roots.” Then, the camera pulls back to reveal Merkley’s opponent to be his young daughter, Brynne. The music cuts out and there is only silence as Brynne sinks a winning shot on her father and the ball bounces to the floor. Merkley utters a grunt of frustration as he bends to reclaim the rolling ball. The awkward, self-effacing element of the scene underlines Merkley’s modest proximity. Though he holds a position of power, he communicates, “I do not pretend to stand out above you.” The humility attached to losing at ping-pong to his young daughter reaffirms his crucial identity as an unpretentious citizen.

Responses and Commentary

In a solidly blue state, public response to Merkley’s “workmanlike” persona has been positive. Opposing voices have characterized Merkley as “marching in lockstep with President Obama and progressive Democrats,” an “Obama puppet,” and a “progressive rubber-stamper.”[9] While Merkley’s causes have been consistent with the progressive Democratic agenda, these causes resonate with Oregon voters. Some commenters were of the opinion that they would prefer a senator who can “think for himself.”[10] This begs the question: should representatives vote for themselves, or their constituents? “Garage” seems to reinforce the message of the latter.

Notes

 [1] Saul Hubbard, “Merkley, Wehby race looks lopsided,” The Register-Guard, last modified October 21, 2014, http://registerguard.com/rg/news/local/32236073-75/has-merkley-wehby-race-lost-its-hint-of-suspense.html.csp#.

[2] Hubbard, “Merkley, Wehby race looks lopsided.”

[3] Jean-Pascal Daloz, “How Political Representatives Earn Legitimacy: A Symbolic Approach,” International Social Science Journal 90, no. 160 (2009): 285.

[4] Daloz, “How Political Representatives Earn Legitimacy: A Symbolic Approach,” 286.

[5] Daloz, “How Political Representatives Earn Legitimacy: A Symbolic Approach,” 286.

[6] Daloz, “How Political Representatives Earn Legitimacy: A Symbolic Approach,” 286.

[7] Daloz, “How Political Representatives Earn Legitimacy: A Symbolic Approach,” 286.

[8] Daloz, “How Political Representatives Earn Legitimacy: A Symbolic Approach,” 286.

[9] “Merkley Has Earned Second Term,” The Register Guard, last modified October 19, 2014, http://registerguard.com/rg/opinion/32291823-78/merkley-has-earned-second-term.html.csp.

[10] “Merkley Has Earned Second Term.”