Thursday, March 20, 2014

The McConnelling

I didn't see last Thursday's edition of "The Daily Show" until last night, so I'm a little behind on the newest political meme that has apparently taken the internet by storm - well, at least in certain circles. House minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) recently released what's essentially two-and-a-half minutes of B-roll footage, just shots of him looking patriotic and competent without any dialogue or narration. The intention was for any pro-Republican PACs and super PACs out there he's not supposed to be coordinating with to to use the footage to generate supportive ads independently. More on that in a minute.

Anyway, "The Daily Show" found the footage and had so much fun setting the bland, boring visuals to a variety of pop songs, including Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence,” Salt-n-Pepa’s “Whatta Man,” and Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” that they devoted a whole segment to it. Then Jon Stewart put up a "#McConnelling" hashtag and invited his audience to join in the fun. The internet hasn't disappointed - my favorites so far include ones set to The Offspring's "Pretty Fly for a White Guy," and the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" theme song. McConnell does look strangely like cartoon turtle from the right angles. Another tactic has been to stick McConnell into the credits of old TV shows as a featured guest star. I expect we'll be getting a compilation of the best videos when "The Daily Show" comes back from break next week.

Media reactions have been fairly muted. The meme is silly and tame enough that it would come across as pretty ridiculous to try and take any offense. McConnell's people have embraced McConnelling, even adding links to some of the blander mashups on the Congressman's official website. I'm not sure that he understands that he's being mocked, though. Most of the successful McConnelling videos are playing on the total incongruity between McConnell's milquetoast appearance and songs full of sex and angst and ninja turtles. And I don't think that many of the participants really understand the full implications of what McConnelling has done.

The internet, at the instigation of "The Daily Show," has essentially appropriated the footage meant to be used for some fairly shady campaigning and made it impossible to take any of it seriously. I don't know that I'll be able to watch at any ad using this footage with a straight face. And there's a pretty good likelihood that future Mitch McConnell ads are just going to be mined for more material if this meme sticks around through the next election cycle. However, I don't feel too badly for the guy because he essentially brought this on himself by putting the original footage out there, and making it pretty obvious what it was intended to be used for. He can't really complain about McConnelling being appropriate because the ads they were intended for are hardly appropriate in the first place.

There have been lots of spoofs of political ads over the years, and election seasons practically demand them. One of my favorites to emerge from the internet was a fake John McCain ad from back in 2008, where a couple of clever filmmakers put together a campaign spot as if it had been directed by Wes Anderson, complete with a Bowie song and captions in Futura font. However, I think it's telling that McConnelling happened almost spontaneously, outside of the context of any serious campaigning going on. Most McConnelling videos are almost aggressively apolitical, and I expect that any attempt by either side to inject any politics won't be well received.

Consider the wider implications of this. The internet culture is now moving so fast now that we're essentially spoofing political ads that don't exist yet. This should be a good wake-up call for everyone that was scoffing about President Obama doing the "Between Two Ferns" appearance on Funny or Die last week. It doesn't matter if you don't engage with the Millennials because the Millennials are eventually going to engage with you, and good luck trying to keep control of the message when that happens.

I don't think that McConnell is going to be too successful if he tries to capitalize on his newfound fame with the meme-generating set. Fortunately, I don't think he has much interest in doing so. Responses in interviews regarding the McConnelling phenomenon have included the usual requests for help with fundraising, but mostly his people have been pretty quiet, which is probably for the best. Politicians who have tried to capitalize off of memes haven't had a very good success rate.

Remember the "Janet Reno Dance Party" sketch from "Saturday Night Live"? Yeah, now do you remember the "Janet Reno Dance Party" fundraiser when she was trying to run for governor of Florida back in 2002? Not the best idea, as it turned out.


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