To show how this is done right, here are a couple of campaign ads in support of an incumbent president, each directed toward women. First, Eisenhower in 1956 here. The theme is promoting continued peace and prosperity (e.g., fighting inflation) as a safeguard to the family. Notice that when a single woman appears (at around 1:40), she thinks of herself chiefly as a future mother and homemaker.
Since that will be “too fifties” for many, have a look at this 1980 ad by Mary Tyler Moore supporting the reelection of President Carter. Here we have a liberal television star speaking to women on behalf of an incumbent Democratic president. Yet what a difference from Lena Dunham. This is a celebrity ad made for women, but men are gently included, and the very idea of an ad based on celebrity is delicately questioned. The spot is superb. Although Moore gained fame portraying a single woman, she speaks of America as a nation of “two-job families.”
Lena Dunham’s ad comes from a different world. It’s a world in which young unmarried women, who expect to stay that way for quite some time, have become a core constituency of the Democratic Party. (See Joel Kotkin on the phenomenon, which is behind the infamous Life of Julia ad as well.) Here, cultural issues are paramount, and the goal is to come off as cool. You do that by flouting convention, which labels the outraged as hopelessly uncool. Not voting for Obama, says Dunham, is “super uncool,” too.
Obama himself has jumped on this bandwagon, putting down Romney and the Republicans as the equivalent of uncool black-and-white TV reruns (like that Eisenhower ad). That’s also where the president’s “horses and bayonets” attack came from in the third debate.
The goal of Dunham’s ad and Obama’s antics is to make young female voters even thinking about supporting Romney, or not voting at all, feel hopelessly uncool. The problem is that living at home with your parents after graduating college without a job is actually more uncool than declining to vote for a celebrity president. The sense that Romney might be able to do something about that employment problem is what’s drawing women voters away from the president, and sending shivers through the Obama camp. Ads like Dunham’s are the result.
In the end, the economic issues that lay behind that Eisenhower ad haven’t gone away, despite Dunham’s sketch of a fantasy world in which the economy doesn’t exist. And as Mary Tyler Moore understood, the most effective ads in support of cultural change take care not to alienate the part of the country that isn’t the core audience, but may be watching anyway.
With Dunham, you can’t help but feel that half the point of that ad was to drive the rest of the country crazy. That’s part of the fun, and the cool. Lately, Obama seems to feel the same way.