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.