By Chris Stigall
Can Comedy Save Obama’s Bad Brand?
In marketing, your brand is everything. And when your brand’s in trouble, you’ll resort to nearly anything to save it. That’s President Obama – a man in desperate need of brand rehabilitation. Apparently, that’s in the form of comedy. If you can’t make ‘em trust you, make ‘em laugh.
Enter actor Zach Galifianakis and his web-based show “Between Two Ferns.” It’s funny as hell. That’s his brand. “Saturday Night Live” is extremely weak and teetering on irrelevant these days, but still resonates with people that follow news and politics. It’s a nearly 40-year-old brand.
I can’t take it when my conservative friends won’t acknowledge what’s happening in pop culture. I cringe when I hear fellow talk radio hosts dismiss actors, actresses and their shows as vapid, wastes of space pandering to only the lowest common denominator. Dismissing them as unfunny or untalented simply because they’re partisans or supportive of President Obama.
This week, I heard that said more than a few times of Zach Galifianakis. Best known for his role as “Alan” in the “Hangover” movie franchise, Galifianakis has also become an Internet sensation with his web-based show “Between Two Ferns.” A ridiculous, purposely designed, low-rent setting where host Zach asks inane, insulting, and obscure questions of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
It’s meant to be a joke. It’s a vehicle to show off Galifianakis’ wickedly awkward talent to be inappropriate, unimpressed, and totally unprofessional with the biggest stars in the world. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s really very funny.
The latest “Ferns” made news this week as it featured President Obama.
This is all some conservatives need to hear to say, “How pathetic! That was totally scripted and unfunny, blah, blah, blah.” If that’s you – just stop it. Zach Galifianakis is hilarious. Obama played his part well. But most of all, it had a very important purpose.
Understand that Galifianakis and his comedy colleague Will Ferrell have personally invested a lot of time in becoming politically helpful to the Obama administration through their comedy. And the Obama administration is a lot of things, but detached from the culture they ain’t. Ferrell and Galifianakis are two of the most bankable comedy stars today.
When names like these are willing to help the president and his team pitch their politics, they’d be fools to turn it down.
Which brings us to the latest “Ferns.” A scripted, petulant President Obama tries to navigate through the scripted, awkward and insulting questions from Galifianakis. The six minute bit is all designed to allow Obama the opportunity to pitch his government health insurance website.
The bit was funny. It was funny because it was the first time I’ve ever seen the President allow himself to be seen as an object of ridicule. The bit was also carefully scripted to make Obama seem like a tough guy, who wasn’t going to tolerate Galifinakis’ rudeness.
Galifianakis makes you laugh and Obama will get credit from most viewers for appearing to play ball in a really ridiculous, albeit wildly popular online bit featuring one of the biggest stars in pop culture comedies today.
As of this writing, the bit seems to have worked – allegedly drawing tens of thousands of new visitors to Healthcare.gov.
Last week’s opening sketch on “Saturday Night Live” was also a bit of an Obama comedy case study. Jay Pharoah, as President Obama laments his inability to negotiate with the aggressive Vladimir Putin of Russia. That’s when actor Liam Neeson bursts into the scene to offer the president his help.
Neeson stared directly into the camera and parodied a dramatic monologue from his starring role in the 2008 movie “Taken.” Whether you saw last week’s “SNL” or “Taken,” here’s the bottom line. Neeson’s guest shot was to appear as a tough guy prepared to aggressively deal with Putin, while Obama seemed helpless to ward off the Russian president alone.
Again, Neeson was funny parodying his tough, action hero role. Pharoah’s Obama was an unimpressive wallflower. For the record – “Saturday Night Live” as a whole is an unfunny mess posting their lowest ratings of the season last week. Still, some viewed the opening segment as a rare comedic critique of Obama from the writers of “SNL.”
There’s one thing both of these Obamas, both actual on “Ferns” and fictional on “SNL” share in common. If you’re a brand-marketing specialist you can see it from downtown.
The Obama brand is badly damaged.
Again, I heard it said that Obama’s appearance on “Ferns” did nothing but “diminish the office of the presidency.” It was said the “SNL” sketch “diminished” Obama as a “feckless, weak leader.”
Those are comments about the brand of President Obama.
When a brand begins to fall off in sales, or in Obama’s case – public support, there are a variety of ways to boost revenues/support. You can create a new product like Obamacare. Then, spend hundreds of millions to advertise that new product as he has with Obamacare. But ultimately, if the initial launch isn’t strong, you must then launch a public relations campaign complete with coupons or special offers, like waivers and delays for unions and businesses.
And of course, enlisting the help of celebrities is always effective.
Yet despite all these promotional gimmicks, the Obama brand is sinking. Why? Because the product he’s pitching as well as the pitchman have no credibility.
To the writers of SNL, Obama can’t make the sale as Commander In Chief – so it’s Liam Neeson to the rescue. You might think that’s a ridiculous analogy, as it’s a comedy sketch. Until you realize that’s exactly what’s happening – for real – when it comes to his sale of Obamacare.
The president can’t sell Obamacare on its own merits so he needs a pop-culture comedy venue in Zach Galifianakis to reach people who tune him out. And Galifianakis is a masterful choice for a damaged brand. But, subtly or overtly – the American public sees an American president now resorting to any gimmick available to sell a bad product.
Galifianakis’ brand is funny. Obama basked in some of that this week. Saturday Night Live’s brand, as Lorne Michaels recently put it, is speaking “truth to power.” Or in this week’s case, mocking the lack of power.
A president’s brand is supposed to be strong, trustworthy, serious, and competent. President Obama has trashed that brand.
But he’s still good for a laugh.