Back in 1993, when Hillary Clinton was still co-president, they were shills for the insurance industry in 30-second spots agonizing over health-care reform. Next to this couple, Jim and Tammy were eggheads and pillars of truth. Harry and Louise discussing the Clinton proposal had the intellectual honesty of a three-card monte game and the gravitas of a 2 a.m. pitch for a Craftmatic Adjustable Bed.
Because if you're going to spend cash money trying to persuade (i.e., terrify) voters, why waste it on fairness and context, much less nuance? The whole idea-at least as the political right practices advocacy advertising-is to present an issue in stark terms, and never mind if the starkness exaggerates the threat.
OK, that was then. Now comes President Bush's Social Security plan, an equally ambitious attempt to alter the social contract, with a similar investment of taxpayer dollars and political capital. Only, this time the shoe is on the other foot. This time, the Democrats and their allies get to scare old people.
GOING TO EXTREMES
And God knows they have raw material: a 70-year-old government guarantee of a retirement safety net suddenly, by Bush's proposal, subject to an element of Wall Street risk. Enter, then, the AARP with an advocacy ad aiming to make that point via hyperbolic metaphor.
"Yep, it looks like the drain is clogged," says a scruffy plumber to a housewife in the spot by GSD&M, Austin, Texas. "Only one way to fix it. We're going to have to tear down the entire house."
"What?" the lady says, nonplussed.
Whereupon a bulldozer knocks down the living room wall. As the house is razed before our eyes, the voice-over explains: "If you had a problem with the kitchen sink, you wouldn't tear down the entire house. So why dismantle Social Security when it can be fixed with a few moderate changes? Reform is necessary. But diverting money into private accounts is just too drastic. It could add up to $2 trillion in more debt and lead to huge benefit cuts. For more, visit aarp.org."
You may, indeed, for a slightly less hysterical take on the controversy. But the images of a wrecking ball coming through the ceiling and a workman taking a sledgehammer to a china closet are apt to be a more vivid argument than any position paper. And, by our lights, the analogy scans just fine.
Is the ad entirely straightforward? No. For instance, it doesn't mention that the "moderate" changes are a combination of more payroll taxes, higher retirement ages and means testing that would reduce Social Security benefits for more-affluent retirees-all of which have been deemed political non-starters for at least two decades.
And, yes, hyperbole is by definition exaggeration. But there is a difference between demagoguery and figure of speech. Here the main assertion, that the president's plan is draconian, appeals more to reason than fear.
Even Harry and Louise would be able to grasp the concept, if they could see it. Sadly, in 2003, they bought a $4.000 adjustable bed for their arthritis, and their HMO refused to pay for it.
So they had to sell their TV.
Review 3 stars
Location: Austin, Texas