A psycho-analytic reading of Clinton's "Children" ad.
In the recent Democratic primaries, Clinton beat Obama in Ohio and Texas, due partly to a television ad titled "Children." It begins with an ominous phone ringing as kids sleep peacefully in their beds. A grave voiced man says, "It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing." He warns us that "Something’s happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call."
Pundits have already rehearsed the surface meaning. Obama doesn’t have the experience to deal with a global crisis; who do you trust to protect your family and so on. Let’s not join the chorus and instead look at the ad’s excess because the excess is always the site of truth.
First a phone is ringing in the White House but somehow it can be heard in the bedrooms of suburban America. The imposition of the ringing over the children’s sleeping faces is a sign that danger has come into our world, the peace of our lives will be disturbed. We the viewer can hear it but not answer. We are powerless to protect our kids and feel anxiety which is the commercial’s goal, to make us panic.
In the final moment, we see the mother going to her kids and then it cuts to Sen. Clinton picking up the phone. We are safe again. We can go back to sleep. The sleight of hand is barely detectable. The point is not that the world is dangerous and we need protection but that we know the world is dangerous and can’t do anything about it. Clinton’s ad gets its power from our assumed powerlessness.
It shows no actual threat; we see no masked men, no bomb explosions just a phone ringing. The ad generates anxiety based on our powerlessness and depends upon us believing it. No wonder then that the fantasy in "The Children" is not only that Clinton will protect us but that we can go back to sleep. Her promise to us is that even if a global crisis happens, we can snore through it because nothing will really change. The ideology of her ad is deeply reactionary and elitist because within it we the viewer are reduced to sleeping infants.
The real danger in "The Children" is not from the outside world but from us. If we wake up and seize control of our lives no one will be able to make a living off our fear. In order to do so, we’d have to see ourselves as mature adults who know the measure of their power.
Of course when Sen. Clinton does pick up the phone, in another excessive slip it’s 3am but she’s dressed as if it’s mid-afternoon. She is not wearing pajamas but a suit. She’s not disheveled but hair tucked and lipstick on. Who looks like that at 3am? The point again is she, to borrow a phrase from Orwell, is if not our Big Brother invading our privacy is our Big Mother who keeps us imprisoned inside it.
Obama replied to the commercial, pointing out the obvious that it is supposed to scare us into voting for Clinton. He’s right but only half way right. Sen. Clinton’s ad "The Children" infantilizes the American adult. Although it is meant to say that Obama is unprepared to be president its real meaning is that we are unprepared to be citizens.