VoteVets Action Fund, “The Walk”

  • Title: “The Walk”
  • Sponsor: VoteVets Action Fund
  • Issue of Focus: Veterans Affairs
  • Type of Ad: Negative
  • Broadcast location: television in Kentucky
  • Ad Buy: $300,000 over five days
  • Release date: September 2, 2014
  • Time: 0:30
  • Ad URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTqdMgJo-sw

Transcript:

  • Screen text: HE WAS EXPOSED TO AGENT ORANGE IN VIETNAM. NOW…[new line] DIABETES [new line] A STROKE [new line] HEART DISEASE [new line] CANCER. HE DEPENDS ON A [new line] VETERANS HOSPITAL [new line] FOR CARE. IN A TIME OF CRISIS: [new line] MITCH McCONNELL [new line] BLOCKED $21 BILLION DOLLARS [sic.][new line] FOR VETERANS.
  • Charles Erwin (to camera): Senator McConnell, I did my duty. But after thirty years in Washington, you failed to do yours. Time for you to go.
  • Erwin voice over: VoteVets Action Fund is responsible for the content of this advertising.
  • Screen text: MITCH McCONNELL [new line] 30 YEARS IS LONG ENOUGH

Analysis of “The Walk”

Will Howell (University of Maryland)

This advertisement emerges from Kentucky’s 2014 U.S. senate race. The Republican incumbent, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is challenged by Kentucky’s Democratic Secretary of State, Alison Lundergan Grimes. McConnell initially held a significant lead, but by early September 2014—when this advertisement began to air—the poll numbers revealed a closer race. The advertisement’s sponsor, VoteVets, opposes McConnell, but they cannot advertise in support of Lundergan Grimes because they have not endorsed her. Campaign finance laws also require them to make an issue-based attack on McConnell. These campaign restrictions impact the ad that VoteVets can produce. I argue that the authenticity of their spokesperson, a Vietnam Veteran, allows VoteVets to make a visual, issue-based argument in tandem with an anti-McConnell message focused on his age, gender, and his time in office.

The advertisement’s extensive use of visuals requires the viewer’s active visual engagement. In place of music, the advertisement features white noise that resembles traffic noise. This traffic buzz is punctuated at two points by chirping birds, and then more regularly by metallic tapping. If the viewer questions the origin of that sound, the advertisement quickly reveals its source as an older man with a cane comes into view and into focus. As he approaches, the advertisement constructs his story using screen text. He “WAS EXPOSED TO AGENT ORANGE IN VIETNAM,” and he now suffers from “DIABETES,” “A STROKE,” “HEART DISEASE,” and “CANCER.” The viewer only learns his name—Charles Erwin of Mayfield, Kentucky—when Mr. Erwin speaks: “Senator McConnell, I did my duty. But after thirty years in Washington, you failed to do yours. Time for you to go.” Without visual engagement, the viewer would have no idea who Mr. Erwin is or why his verbal opinion is worthy of consideration.

The visually-engaged viewer sees a series of visuals that establish Mr. Erwin as an ailing Vietnam veteran. The metallic tapping can be visually identified as Mr. Erwin’s cane, and the viewer can see (as he walks toward the camera) that his walk is burdened. Mr. Erwin walks among trees as the screen says he “was exposed to Agent Orange,” a well-known defoliant used in the Vietnam War. While he shuffles into focus, viewers learn that the chemical caused him to suffer from several significant illnesses. When he stops, viewers see the words “Vietnam Veteran” on his medal-laden hat. He dips his head, collects himself, and squints at the camera before speaking. Mr. Erwin’s age confirms the possibility that he served in Vietnam, and his gender meets cultural expectations of veterans from that war.

Mr. Erwin and Mitch McConnell share a bond: both are older men who are most distinct from younger, female Lundergan Grimes. She is thirty-five years old, and she has made her gender and youth key issues against McConnell. [1] VoteVets could have chosen a spokesperson in-sync with Lundergan Grimes’s image and message, but they instead chose an archetypical veteran. Should any voters identify with the older, male McConnell, the inclusion of Mr. Erwin may help attract more voters to Lundergan Grimes. To those who privilege age or gender, Mr. Erwin might be the bridge voters need to cross over to Lundergan Grimes’s candidacy.

This strategy of identification depends on ensuring that viewers deem Mr. Erwin an authentic ailing, veteran. VoteVets filmed Mr. Erwin in a single-continuous shot. As he walks toward the camera, viewers assess whether the screen text matches his visual presentation. Since “assertions of authenticity…rest on claims that a person is ‘natural’ and without ‘artifice,’” VoteVets gives viewers everything they need to conclude that Mr. Erwin is, indeed, an authentic, ailing Vietnam veteran. [2]

The authentic Mr. Erwin becomes a vehicle for a second verbal argument in line with other anti-McConnell messages: Senator McConnell has been in Washington, DC far too long. After Mr. Erwin tells McConnell, “Time for you to go,” white text on a black screen says, “MITCH McCONNELL [new line] 30 YEARS IS LONG ENOUGH.” This text comes roughly five seconds after Mr. Erwin also said that Mitch McConnell, “after thirty years in Washington,” had failed. McConnell’s failure may come from his length of service or his acculturation to Washington DC, but either way it is grounds for a change.

“The Walk” thus underscores the rhetorical power of authentic spokespeople. In a televised thirty-second advertisement, no group or candidate can possibly present enough information to prove that “30 years is long enough.” A group like VoteVets struggles to make general arguments stick because they cannot coordinate with candidates or other 501(c)4 organizations, and because they are legally-bound to mount an argument within their issue-area. When viewers authenticate a spokesperson vis-à-vis an issue area, they are granting that the spokesperson exudes some truth or naturalness. This recognition of truth may allow authentic spokespeople to move from their issue area to broader conclusions. Such moves, from issue-area to general-judgment, are impossible without the active engagement of the viewer. “The Walk” gives viewers the power to draw their own conclusions about the spokesperson’s authenticity.

Notes

[1] Alexandra Jaffe, “Lundergan Grimes focuses on generation divide, gender in Senate race,” The Hill. July 3, 2013.

[2] Edward G. Armstrong, “Eminem’s Construction of Authenticity,” Popular Music & Society 27, no. 3 (2004): 338.