Damned Spot

At Home With Hillary

The Hillary Clinton spot discussed here was produced by Devito/Verdi, with Mandy Grunwald and Mark Penn. Click for a transcript of the ad.

To: Jacob Weisberg

From: William Saletan

The first thing that’s striking about this ad is the tense. Most ads are delivered in the present tense to convey action Hillary Vid (“I’m campaigning to make a difference for people”) or in the future tense to convey promise (“I’ll make a difference for people”). This ad begins in the past tense and, in so doing, pointedly refers to the viewer as well as the candidate: “When I started this campaign, I’m not sure I knew quite what to expect, and you probably didn’t either. But I’ve tried to stay focused on our common mission.”

Why the past tense and the joint references? Because Hillary Clinton needs to erase the impression that she’s a carpetbagger. The central problem with her candidacy is that her past is in Illinois, Arkansas, and Washington, D.C. She needs to invent a past in New York. What she’s doing in this ad, therefore, is telling the viewer the story of their courtship. She’s using the past tense to stretch out the sensation of time, recalling the day long ago when two strangers met (“I’m not sure I knew quite what to expect, and you probably didn’t either”) and suggesting, through the ad’s warm setting, music, and tone of voice, that the relationship has deepened to intimacy. Please, don’t call her Mrs. Clinton. As the on-screen logo insists, just call her “Hillary.”

The second charge she faces is that she’s arrogant. To soften that impression, she repeatedly confesses the limits of her knowledge and power. She’s “not sure.” She didn’t “know quite what to expect.” She hopes “you’ll give me that chance.” For a woman thick-skinned enough to have endured multiple investigations, high-profile serial adultery, and her husband’s impeachment, her demeanor in this ad is, to say the least, remarkably shy. It’s even more remarkable when you remember that as she delivers her words, she’s not gazing vulnerably and entreatingly into the eyes of a human being. She’s gazing vulnerably and entreatingly into the lens of a camera.

Her third problem is that her negative rating is high. Too many New Yorkers have already decided they don’t like her. She needs to make some of them reconsider. So she diverts their attention from personality to issues (“But I’ve tried to stay focused on our common mission—making a difference for people” on education and health care) and asks them to set aside their distrust for the sake of practical achievements (“If we reach past our divisions, there’s so much we can do working together”).

I guess Hillary isn’t the witch I thought she was. She seems so warm and honest, and I love what she’s done with her living room. I feel almost as though I’m sitting across the coffee table from her, with nothing between us but a tray of cookies and tea.

To: William Saletan

From: Jacob Weisberg

In many ways, this spot resembles the National Rifle Association ads we reviewed last week. Hillary Clinton is attempting to win over people who are hostile to her not by offering a persuasive argument that she’s right and they’re wrong, but by presenting an image at odds with what they think they know about her. New Yorkers who regard the first lady as the creature of conservative caricature—a grasping, power-hungry feminist—see her here as exactly the opposite: a soothing, feminine presence who hardly seems political at all.

The ad is anodyne, but there’s a good deal of craft in it. If you watch it repeatedly, you begin to see how every element contributes to the reassuring effect of suburban serenity. The living room in what I presume is the Clintons’ new home in Chappaqua, is appointed in a way that is stylish enough to suggest that someone actually lives there, without being personalized in a way that might offend someone else’s tastes. Moldings and wainscoting let us know that it’s an old house; but the furniture is stripped down and modern. Black and white photographs adorn pale pastel-colored walls. There are two vases of elegant cut flowers. The Clintons have apparently shipped Kaki Hockersmith back to Arkansas and replaced her with … Martha Stewart. The music could be coming from a child practicing the piano at the other end of the room. It’s as if the candidate just returned to her den after a day of listening to New Yorkers. Shadows against the back wall suggest afternoon—as does the azure sweater draped over the candidate’s shoulders. The cosmetology, too, is world-class; candidate Clinton, speaking more liltingly than usual, with a demure smile, looks as good as you’ve ever seen her. But she looks great without going so far as to look sexy, because, as with the decorating, turning some people on means turning others off.  

I too noticed the verb tenses. The present active participles, like the sweater over Mrs. Clinton’s shoulders, let us know that she’s making … lifting up … helping … working, without getting much into the dicey issue of just what she’s making, lifting, etc. The other thing that reminded me of last week’s NRA ads was the way the script tries to slip under the door the notion that we the viewers share the speaker’s goals even if we had supposed otherwise. You’re right about the intimate “you and I” tone and first-name bonding. We don’t have to decide if we agree with Hillary because Hillary already agrees with us.

Her agenda is actually “our common mission.” She elaborates on it with references to things that sound utterly uncontroversial: “better education and health care. Helping our families with tax cuts for college and long-term care. Working to create new jobs.” Of course, Mrs. Clinton’s views on these issues are anything but uncontroversial when you get down to specifics about what the government’s role should be—as her previous attempt to create “better health care” showed. Yet according to Hillary, we all share common ground. “If we reach past our divisions, there’s so much we can do working together,” she says.

If you think about this for a minute, these words don’t signify anything at all. Does “reach past our divisions” mean she gives up and accepts what her opponents want, or the other way around? The purposefully banal phraseology is straight out of her husband’s playbook. Hillary hopes to find the center of the electorate and lay claim to it through the use of focus-group-tested language, just as Bill did after 1994. I thought it was interesting to note that Bill Clinton’s pollster, Mark Penn, shared credit with Mrs. Clinton’s media consultant, Mandy Grunwald, for the ad.