Saturday, November 1, 2008

Politics relying more on pop culture



Talk shows, web videos alter campaigns
By TED JOHNSON

On "The Daily Show" last week, Jon Stewart spoke with self-satisfaction about his ability to land Barack Obama as a guest at a critical period just days before the presidential election. And then he ran a videotape that punctured his pride: Mario Lopez interviewing Obama days earlier for the showbiz show "Extra."
As absurd as it seems, it speaks to how far this presidential race has veered into pop culture backdrops.

Political observers scarcely bat an eye when candidates appear on such magazine shows (once reserved for tabloid tales and red-carpet regality), as solons have made the talk circuit part of their media gameplan.

As serious and momentous as this presidential election has been, the entertainment realm has shaped the campaign on a scale that could not have been imagined even four years ago.

Here are the five ways Hollywood has had the most impact on this contest:

1. Latenight Sure, there's Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, but the real development is that candidates are now expected to appear on the shows that routinely use them as punchlines. Meanwhile, talkshow hosts' softball chatter is giving way to more relentless questioning. Candidates don't just have to worry about being funny, They have the added uncertainty of facing queries perhaps overlooked by the news media, like David Letterman's grilling of John McCain over his attacks on Obama over William Ayers. The stakes are higher these days and, as McCain found out when he canceled on Letterman, the candidates who approach latenight as the stuff of fluff do so at their own peril.

2. Web videos The 10 million-plus YouTube views of Will.i.am's "Yes, We Can" video, introduced in January, inspired not just a bevy of knockoffs but planted a seed in many a mind. Take the last week of October: In a video endorsing Obama, Ron Howard enlisted Andy Griffith and Henry Winkler to recreate their respective characters from "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Happy Days"; in another vid, Thomas Haden Church riffed on Joe the Plumber; and in his own YouTube spot, Leonardo DiCaprio rounded up the industry's A-list, including Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise, to get out the vote.

Those are just a few of the Web videos to pop up in the final days of presidential race, and it speaks to the new creative outlet for politically minded entertainment types. In past cycles, Hollywood's effort to help out presidential campaigns with 30-second spots or speeches were usually met with a polite "Thanks, but no thanks." With the Web, their ideas will no longer be stifled.

3. Endorsements Fiction meets reality: Jimmy Smits, who in "The West Wing" played an upstart presidential candidate preaching "hope," last week introduced Obama and Bill Clinton at a Florida rally. Campaigns proved much savvier in how they deployed celeb endorsees, and Obama's campaign matched star with state as if it were a well-run casting agency.

The preference of celebs may be easily dismissed, but that's missing the point. The idea that Oprah made a population vote for Obama seems ridiculous. Her rallies, however, helped the campaign's organizational strength in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. On the other side of the partisan scale, Chuck Norris' kitsch-y ads with Mike Huckabee helped draw attention to the long-shot's presidential campaign.

4. Money Entertainment barely makes the top 10 list of industries that raise dollars for all candidates, but Hollywood has never stopped being a politicians' favorite ATM.

The close-knit community makes raising money easier, but it's the high-profile nature of the industry that created a sense of momentum for Obama last year when the race for campaign cash was in full bloom. When he held his first Hollywood event in late February 2007, with Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen as hosts, it was the first big warning shot to Hillary Clinton of the challenges ahead.

Even McCain tapped into showbiz money despite Democrats' lopsided advantage (Obama, with $7.2 million, outraised him 7-to-1 in Hollywood, according to the Center for Responsive Politics). McCain's efforts drew enough of a critical mass of stars and industry figures that the Weekly Standard declared Hollywood Republicans were "out of the closet and into the spotlight."

5. Celebrity Hollywood bristled whenMcCain deployed his "celeb" ad, comparingObama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. The spots may have worked for a bit, but as the economic crisis took hold, the tactic looked ever more frivolous.

Hollywood players were less fearful of speaking out and fighting back, especially about Sarah Palin, whose rise Matt Damon compared to a "really bad Disney movie."

Face it, when even Joe the Plumber can't resist the trappings of fame -- he's pursuing a recording contract -- you know that the anti-Hollywood argument is wilting.

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