Citizens Against Government Waste delivers a powerful message. But is it racist?

March 23, 2011

Yes, it’s manipulative, and it may even be racist, but this insidious spot for Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) is without a doubt the finest piece of political propaganda I’ve seen in many years, right up there with the Willy Horton revolving doors spot decrying Michael Dukakis for President.

That ad was insidious too. And many claim it helped Bush win the election. So what are we to make of CAGW’s work? The Huffington Post does a nice job of detailing the spot’s narrative:

The avant-garde spot, which takes place in “Beijing, China, 2030 AD,” shows a “Chinese professor” lecturing a classroom full of smug students about the fall of “empires” like the Greeks, Romans, British, and United States of America.

“They all make the same mistakes,” the professor says. Turning their backs on the principles that made them great. America tried to spend and tax itself out of a great recession. Enormous so-called “stimulus” spending, massive changes to health care, government takeover of private industries, and crushing debt.”

Of course, the professor says, because the Chinese owned that debt, they are now masters of the Americans.

The students laugh.

“You can change the future. You have to,” an urgent voice says, concluding the ad.

In another story, James Fallows, of the Atlantic, called the piece “phenomenal.”

Both writers cite the spots undeniable power, whether one likes it or not. Fallows claims it is a commercial we will be remembering ten years from now.

I think they’re right. Politics aside, what’s most troubling about the work is the way it demonizes the Chinese people. We cannot help but be made angry by their smug declarations of superiority over the United States. Is this racism? It certainly flirts with it.

Despite positioning them as world leaders (over the U.S.) the spot subtly plays with older stereotypes as well. For example, note the way the students wait for their professor to laugh at his own observation before they do so themselves. This implies (to me anyway) the old belief that the Chinese are soulless robots. God forbid, they have thoughts of their own.

Another remarkable feature of this commercial is the quality of its production. Most propaganda, however powerful, tends to have a cheap and sleazy aura about it. Not this piece. These are good actors, well cast, and beautifully shot.

This is must see television for anyone in our business. Not only does it exploit human fear, playing with our most sensitive emotions, it also demonstrates the power of film. Forget “Imported from Detroit” and the Groupon campaign, if this spot ran on the Superbowl it’s all we’d be talking about.

24 Responses to “Citizens Against Government Waste delivers a powerful message. But is it racist?”

  1. TJ said

    I question whether this spot will be talked about in 10 weeks, let alone 10 years. Sure it looks nice and the acting is solid. But the messaging feels so cliche-laden (tax and spend, government takeover, etc.) that the impact seems minimal at best. The laughter at the end,while intended to feel sinister, ends up feeling a bit forced and silly as well.

  2. I saw this when it first came out, a handful of months ago I think. It seemed to have an initial splash, but I haven’t heard or read anyone talking about it since until now. As such, I am with TJ. Veni, Vidi, Kaput.

  3. jim schmidt said

    a bit over the top, no. seems like something that would have come out of the cold war.

  4. Gene P. said

    Good post. Forgive me for splitting hairs, but the Willie Horton spot and “revolving door prison” spot are not one in the same. The revolving door spot was written by the late Dennis Frankenberry, and makes no mention of Willie Horton. It was masterfully executed and still holds up today. Conversely, the Willie Horton spot was produced by some political operative and has that stridently negative, inartful tenor you expect from that ilk. As for the CAGW spot, the “talking points” come at you like a bad consumer spot whose creative brief is showing. Starts off OK, but ultimately, a ham fest.

  5. Terry said

    Saw the ad. Unbelievably racist. So are we to equate Chinese people as the insidious Dr. No on James Bond? I understand the message that they’re trying to deliver, but you completely ostracize the entire Asian American population.

  6. John Turnbull said

    I like it because it is further evidence of the lies that both parties will resort to in an effort to keep us in the dark. Yes, waste is a problem, but it is not responsible for our debt. The latest push began when both political parties united to repeal the Glass-Stegall bill in 1999, which allowed non-regulated investment institutions to explode the amount of credit entering the marketplace. President Bush and Barack Obama took it from there, and they have sought to impose a discredited economic and financial system that needlessly borrows interest-bearing, debt-creating money on a humanity that hopefully will reject it when they learn the truth. And every lie now being told will bring the day of truth a tad closer. Keep up the good work.

  7. tweedle Neuhauser said

    John Turnbull is the only one who has it right. When you strip away the perhaps none too subtle subtext of “perceived” racism the message is very plain. The dramatization or “propaganda” as some would call it, is what grabs our attention. The message nonetheless is clear: unfunded entitlement spending and numerous other forms of government waste will ultimately diminish the United States to second class status. Yes, the ad may be a little ham-handed. Personally, I do not take offense where the ad reveals the Chinese exercising a little malacious self satisfaction over vanquishing the United States to a second rate economic power as the ad implies. It is clear our government has failed us on numerous levels, not the least of which is sound fiscal monetary policy. If you are unaware that the Chinese are purchasing greater and more resources all over the globe you are in a fugue state. If you delude yourself in believeing the Chinese have an insatiable desire for funding our runaway debt you are doubtless beyond hope. At its inception FDR knew Social Security was an actuarially unsound transfer tax. The consequences of these ill-conceived Ponzi-like financial paradigms have been building for years. The Social Security excess has been used to fund the general operations of government for decades. There exists no such ballyhooed “Trust Fund.” Are we lacking a “Trust Fund,” or a fund of trust? You may wonder what is the connection between FDR and today? Like Obama, FDR was firmly rooted in Keynesian economics which was thouroughly debunked in the 1970s. Our ludicrous trade policies with ever growing deficits are yet another piece of this problem. Clearly the Chinese are entitled to a little self satisfied gloating. They are a highly educated intelligent people who understand capitalism, free market mechanisms and the role of government in business far better than we do. The value of our currency is based on intangible asset(s). They are: Trust and Faith. Sadly, both houses of Congress consists of a body of people I would have neither have the trust nor faith to manage my child’s allowance.

  8. As I am a libertarian the profligate gov’t is a tremendous concern of mine. But I don’t agree with the Cold War-esque scare tactics. Lots of ways to be persuasive about gov’t financial accountability without dragging “Red Scare” out of the archives.

  9. J said

    I think most of us are on the same page. Even Nancy Pelosi would admit we have to worry about our debt. We all probably disagree on the degree of the threat (Glenn Beck thinks our brains will be rewired by the government, while the rest of us are just trying to pay our taxes on time and grumbling about gas prices), but it’s clear that there is some kind of debt crisis.

    That being said, the ad is, at the very least, flirting with racism. The way that GoDaddy.com flirts with sexual innuendo. In fact, the whole reason I’m reading this blog is because I was trying to search and find out whether these were willing actors, or if CAGW just used some random stock footage (I’m betting on the latter). I agree with most of you, who mention the cliche talking points: “tax and spend,” “China will own us,” etc. First off, using such talking points means that CAGW don’t care about convincing or persuading anyone (you know, the entire point of advertising?). They’re basically just preaching to the choir, in addition to people who just believe anything the TV says. These talking points aren’t even creative. It’s the same crap everyone uses from the GOPAC memos, and it’s basically plagiarism at this point.

    Secondly, unless you’re a conspiracy theorist (e.g. Alex Jones), the idea of something simple like government waste turning our country into a Chinese timeshare is ridiculous. When you’re recruiting people into your cult, you don’t start off with threats of a zombie apocalypse and “magic Kool-Aid.” You have to at least appear reasonable and believable. Get the audience’s foot in the door. Even a group as sleazy as the Church of Scientology starts out merely offering “free stress tests.” Anyone seeing this commercial will immediately look out their window and say “Hmm, that’s strange. I don’t see any Chinese troops on my block yet” and the CAGW will just become another group of kooks.

    Also, while I understand the importance and potential influence of a country’s economic policy, I’ve never understood why this political sect of our society (libertarians, republicans who are too afraid to admit they’re republicans, etc.) seems to think taxes and federal spending are as heinous as genocide. For anyone outside of this ideological circle, hearing someone use the words “prison,” “slavery,” “martial law,” or “re-education camps” in the same sentence as “taxes” makes them want to call the psych ward. No, spending a couple hours trying to figure out how to run your business while adapting to tax hikes is not the same as being whipped and starved for five days because you sang a non-patriotic song in public. Dealing with bureaucrats in the government phone line and filling out paperwork is not the same as being trafficked into a prostitution ring after being promised a decent salary to send back home to your family.

    But after watching this ad, you just might be able to draw some parallels.

    • SRP said

      My understanding is these are Washington D.C. college students cast to play Chinese students. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. -Steffan

    • J said

      I will also add that, yes, the quality of the cinematography in this ad are very nice. So was the cinematography in The Passion of the Christ (it actually won an Oscar). But the sound and visuals still didn’t make Mel Gibson any less of an anti-Semite who wanted to guilt-trip evangelicals into voting their religious values.

      This ad is visually appealing, but it’s still not persuasive to non-conservatives, who are supposed to be the target audience if CAGW wants any influence.

    • J-
      I think you might be able to fit one more crass and uninformed straw man argument against conservatives & libertarians into your screed if you look hard enough.

  10. J said

    Lastly (geez, I can’t shut up, can I?), I wanted to emphasize that my critique is not limited to conservative causes. Anytime I hear a liberal organization mention “social justice” or “diversity,” I may agree with some of their ideas, but they obviously won’t gain any following beyond the Moveon.org crowd. I’m tired of these ad campaigns, be they commercials, robocalls, or flyers, that seem to intentionally keep the audience divided. If you go around asking people “Do you support a candidate who supports Sharia law?” you’re only going to get votes from people who already hated Muslims anyway. If you say “We need to get rid of coal mines and oil refineries,” you won’t get any votes from people who work in the energy industry.

    The main issues in both scenarios (national security and energy policy) are valid and important. The problem is the way they are brought up. Instead of making up an absurd threat from American Muslims, why not use the New York phrase, “If you see something, say something”? It applies to everyone, regardless of their religion, and most importantly, it won’t make anyone dismiss the ad as just another bigot trying to incite fear.

    Instead of implying the destruction of someone’s industry, why not talk about adapting these existing industries to new technologies? Heck, even the energy companies themselves like to B.S. that they look into wind and solar research, and it will make the hippies happy too.

    For whatever reason, these ad campaigns just prefer to limit their public appeal.

  11. Mel said

    it was racist. Period.

  12. Emma said

    When will we learn to own our responsibility in this country? Our failure has nothing to do with anyone but us. The ad is not contributing anything constructive but promoting anger and racism. Our goal is try to stop “wasting” and let’s all work together for it is a “RIGHT” thing to do. It is low taste to attack the other group and use them to justify our needs and wrong doings. Remember we had our good old days when many other people including Chinese were suffering from poverty. If promoting enemy is the only way to drive American to change and face the truth, then we definitely have some serious fundamental problem in the country.

  13. Patrick said

    This is very well done, but it is so far over the top it will only live on some email chains for a few more months before it dies.

    Yes it is racist and it’s hard to watch. This is the kind of filth that inspires false impressions and associates race with negative connotations.

  14. Sid Ated said

    Saw this at the gym the other day. It has to be one of the most xenophobic and ignorant attempts to play on the jingoistic fears the dum@ass amerikans seem to harbor. What a load of crap.

  15. MIchael Deakins said

    I am a Republican that is ashamed of this kind of race baiting, saber rattle. These kind of commercials do not solve problems, they indoctrinate those that need an enemy, any enemy to rally a faux cause against. For shame!

  16. Jim - Delaware said

    The commercial is a disgrace pure and simple. A scare tactic nothing more. To add emphasise the professor looks directly into the camera so he is talking directly to the TV audience. Clever yes..but raciist as hell. I am ashamed that some in our country have to stoop to this level to make a point. Dont fall for this BS

  17. robert said

    i think the fact that this spot is or is not racist is secondary. The meat on the bone is the fact that we narrowly avoided being “shut down” last week. Unemployment is still sky high. We do give all of our manufacturing to the Chinese, et all. So where are we going to make our money? There’s nothing in the future that will save us, except maybe Steve Jobs, but that in reality is a small piece of the pie.

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