Wednesday, October 20, 2010

MSNBC’s “Lean Forward”: Critiques of the six “personality” spots

And now, something lightweight and unsubstantial: Thorough critiques of the spots MSNBC is using to highlight six of the network’s leading personalities in its “Lean Forward” campaign. (I’m a little harsh on Morning Joe.)

This is Part 2 in a two-part series on MSNBC’s “Lean Forward” campaign. Part 1 discusses the new tagline, the first two TV spots, and whether or not MSNBC should have an identity.

The cable news channel MSNBC is declaring its identity as a progressively patriotic network with its new “Lean Forward” advertising campaign. As a part of the campaign, the Minneapolis-based ad agency Mono produced eight TV commercials directed by Spike Lee—two that talk broadly about what “Lean Forward” means, and six that highlight individual MSNBC personalities. 

In a previous article, I’ve discussed the “Lean Forward” tagline, dissected the two “broad” TV spots, and whether or not news organizations should have identities. Now, here’s something less substantive: critiques of the six “personality” spots. They’re arranged from best to worst.

Rachel Maddow (“Devotion”)

The spot: We see Rachel Maddow preparing for a show, as Maddow discusses fact-finding and analysis in a voiceover. In one scene, she’s arranging print-outs of news articles on the floor with a Sharpie marker in her mouth; in another, she’s leading a staff meeting, asking, “What’s the explanation for what happened there?” The ad ends with a clip from the beginning of the show in which Maddow says, “Good evening, we begin tonight with a story that no one is talking about.”

The monologue: “News is about stories. It’s about finding all the disparate facts, and then finding their coherence. Doing this right takes rigor and a devotion to facts that borders on obsessive. At the end of the day, though, this is about what’s true in the world.”

Critique: The Rachel Maddow Show is probably the cable news show that most prides itself on its research and original analysis; while it’s certainly far from perfect, it often cites its sources on air and on its blog, and Maddow often challenges conventional wisdom, covers underreported stories, and finds new angles to overreported stories. (Whether or not one agrees with her unconventional wisdom, her news judgment, and alternative angles is an entirely different matter.)

This ad captures that spirit nicely—the line about finding “disparate facts” and “their coherence”  is a nod to the idea of context, something that’s generally ignored in the ADD-inducing cable news cycle. And showing “pre-show”  Maddow—in a hoodie, wearing dorky-cool glasses, with minimal makeup—is an effective way of conveying authenticity. (It’s also refreshing to see on-air personalities not worry about their appearance.) In short, it’s the sharpest of the personality spots that represents the show well. (I’m assessing a one-point penalty for using the buzzphrase “at the end of the day,” though.)

Lawrence O’Donnell (“The Last Word”)

The spot: We see Lawrence O’Donnell walking out of the studio at the end of his show. Calming music plays in the background as O’Donnell discusses the need for clarity in a voiceover; the voiceover is intercut with audio and video snippets of cable news noise. The ad ends with O’Donnell walking out of the building as the security guard wishes O’Donnell a good night.

The monologue: “Today, heroes were villainized. Villains were lionized. Stories were spun. And everyone had their own version of the truth. We need clarity. We deserve answers. So we don’t ask the same questions tomorrow.”

Critique: Lawrence O’Donnell’s show, The Last Word, is only a couple of weeks old, but it seems like it’s trying for a reputation as a thoughtful, reflective show—lengthy interviews, cordially confrontational questioning, and a segment that literally “rewrites” a quote in the news. “Clarity over spin” is something of a cable news cliché, but O’Donnell seems to at least be making some sort of effort.

To that end, this ad works. The intercutting of cable news noise—complete with close-ups of garish cable news chyrons—is an effective contrast to the calm-looking O’Donnell as he walks out of 30 Rock, and his monologue is functional if a little haughty. One quibble: the bit at the end in which the security guard says, “Good night, Lawrence” seems a little contrived. I know what it’s supposed to project—“O’Donnell is a man of the people! He’s even on a first-name basis with the security guard!”—and I’m not even questioning whether or not it’s true; it just felt affected and unnecessary.

Chris Matthews (“Through It All”)

The spot: We see Chris Matthews moments before the start of his show. Last minute preparations are being made around him as Matthews discusses the historical problems America has faced and how debates have shaped how America dealt with those problems. In the last moments of the spot, the director counts down the seconds until going live.

The monologue: “President Kennedy once said, ‘The problems of man are manmade, they can be solved by man.’ We had slavery, we had the Great Depression, we had Jim Crow, we had McCarthyism, the Cold War. We got through it all, and sometimes, we had to argue about how to do it. But it’s really a battle about what kind of country you want to live in. This country has had great debates in the past. We got to do that again.”

Critique: Hardball’s Chris Matthews is known for being—and I don’t necessarily mean this pejoratively—a loquacious loudmouth, so it’s no surprise that his monologue is, at 80 words, the longest among the personality spots. (They apparently had to do some fancy audio editing during his litany of America’s historical problems to fit it all in.) He’s also known for his enthusiasm for history and politics, and the fact that he has seemingly no filter at all when expressing that enthusiasm—for which he sometimes catches flak.

So I like this ad. I like the idea of news shows being rooted in the context of history, although I’m not entirely on board with flatly saying that “[w]e got through it all.” (After all, while slavery, Jim Crow, and the Cold War are all in the past, the results and consequences of them are still reverberating now and will likely continue to do so well into the future.) Chris Matthews’ most endearing quality as a commentator, though, is his aforementioned unfiltered enthusiasm; it’s a shame that couldn’t have been highlighted in his spot.

Ed Schultz (“Alive and Kicking”)

The spot: We see Ed Schultz walking on the streets of New York City on his way to the studio. Schultz looks pensive as he walks through crowded streets as he asks rhetorical questions in a voiceover. When he talks about the “top 2 percent win[ning] over the other 98,” we see a shot of working-class movers; when he asks what happened to common sense, he peers into the window of an empty, for-lease storefront. The ad ends with him reaching the studio.

The monologue: “Why can’t America seem to find solutions to its problems? Why are we letting the top 2 percent of the population win over the other 98? What happened to common sense? What happened to reason? Is it dead? Hell, no. It’s alive, and more than kicking.”

Critique: This ad for The Ed Show doesn’t work. It feels hastily thrown together, and the monologue seems like a recitation of talking points and stock phrases. The spot is less visually arresting than the other spots—it’s just Schultz walking—and it lacks any sort of subtlety: Schultz talks about class warfare, and bam, blue-collar workers; Schultz talks about common sense, and bam, a store that went out of business. The interjection of a mild curse word seems like a lazy way to spice up an otherwise bland ad. I doubt that the ad is going to dissuade anybody from watching Schultz’s show, but it doesn’t offer any reason to watch it, either.

Keith Olbermann (“Cursor”)

The spot: We see Keith Olbermann at his computer typing up—ostensibly with only one or two fingers—a commentary for his show as energetic piano music plays in the background. He (and the music) stops at the word “liberate”; the cursor blinks, and Olbermann replaces it with the word “emancipate.” We then see a snippet of the finished commentary read aloud on the air: “Now is not the time to build fences around our freedom; now is the time to emancipate our culture from the fear of losing it.”

The monologue: None.

Critique: It’s kind of uncomfortable watching an ad for Countdown that is essentially saying, “Here’s a genius at work!” And there’s a sort of mild smugness in the ad implied by the missing monologue as well, as though the mere sight of Olbermann furiously writing simply speaks for itself. It’s a questionable choice by the creative team.

But in any case, why is the emphasis on changing the word “liberate” to “emancipate”? In the context of the snippet we heard (which, devoid of context, is pretty meaningless), “emancipate” isn’t an exceptionally better choice. I’m all for doling out style points, but it’s a bad idea to center an ad on a host fussing over whether his mot is bon enough. I get that the idea is to portray Olbermann as a master wordsmith, but it comes across more as, “Keith Olbermann: Style over substance.”

Joe Scarborough (“Always On”)

The spot: We see the hosts of Morning Joe during a commercial break (or otherwise off the air) chatting with various guests, including New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Al Sharpton. Joe Scarborough opens the ad by declaring, “You tell the truth, they hit you, and then you hit them back harder with the truth” and, in a voiceover, talks about how “America is always on.” Towards the end of the ad, co-host Mika Brzezinski, after she and Scarborough were apparently surprised at a guest’s remark, asks, “Why don’t you just say it on air?”—which is greeted with gales of laughter.

The monologue: “America is unscriptable, and its story always changes. So if we stop and listen, we may be surprised, because even when the cameras are off, America is always on.”

Critique: Yikes. Of the six personality spots, this is probably the only one that makes me less likely to watch the show it’s promoting. First of all, the idea that America is on even when the cameras are off would only be revelatory to those who are firmly ensconced in an airtight media bubble. So that’s strike one.

Second, thanks to the show’s deal with Starbucks, there’s product placement within the spot—in essence, an ad within an ad. The fact that the hosts of the show remind us that Morning Joe is “brewed by Starbucks” and sip coffee branded with the company’s logo already makes the show look disposable. Ads within ads are just cheap and tacky.

And most telling of all, when Mika Brzezinski asks a guest, “Why don’t you just say it on air?,” the suggestion is greeted with loud, automatic laughter. If Brzezinski is a journalist, why is she even asking? Why not make the guest say it on the air with a pointed question? And why is the idea of making a guest—presumably a politician or another newsmaker—say in public what he’s apparently willing to say in private such a laughable prospect?

All this paints a terrible picture of Morning Joe: a corporate vehicle to shill coffee whose hosts are so insidery and enamored with power and influence that the idea of holding a guest accountable for his words is a source of hilarity. Is Morning Joe really that bad? Some would say yes, and this spot provides little reason to doubt it.

And one last thing about the Morning Joe spot

Co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski are sometimes accused of being a little flirty. Indeed, in a New York Times profile of the show, an occasional panelist was quoted as saying that the two are like “brother and sister, with a little incestuous edge.”

In fact, when you type in “joe mika” into Google, “joe mika affair” is among the top suggestions.

Maybe that stuff doesn’t bother them. But if it does, then why would they allow the insertion of this image (at 0:17) in the spot?

Yikes again.

You can email me at And in case you’re wondering, yes, reviewing each ad individually seemed like a better idea when I first started writing this.

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