Not Fit for Dinner: The Shock Value of Cain Solutions’ Animal Ads

Each Friday in Not Fit for Dinner, C. Ryan Knight explores political issues and the preconceptions guiding our understanding of and responses to them.

I’m beginning to wonder if Herman Cain has been studying shock art recently. If you’ve seen the recent commercials Cain Solutions has released (with more, alas, on the way), you know what I mean.

Take a look at the first commercial:

Many were upset by the commercial. It was a preview of what’s to come.

The follow-up video provoked a critical backlash. Here’s the second commercial, released last week:

The fish suffered a distasteful death, but the rabbit’s gory death was simply too much for many viewers.

Much is awry with these Cain Solutions commercials. For one, no solution is given in either ad, despite the organization’s name. In both commercials, a young girl is our appointed economist. The idea is probably that children don’t get caught up in politicking. Instead, this girl makes simplistic statements that somehow are meant to convey economic truths experts overlook. As if the “explanations” were clear enough, the girl asks—or yells—at the end of each, “Any questions?”

What is more, the “story” in each commercial does not coincide well with what the girl says. In the goldfish commercial, the girl says that the writhing fish is “the economy.” This, however, is said only after the fish and its water have both been dumped out. But the economy was still the economy before the 2008 meltdown. So who did the dumping? The girl? An invisible hand?

The rabbit commercial also lacks a clear story. From the way the girl caresses and holds the rabbit, we’re led to believe the creature is tender and innocent. This prepares us to be shocked by its brutal death. Rabbits, however, are a mixed bag, complicating the metaphor paralleling rabbits with small businesses. Rabbits are well-known for the speed at which they reproduce, but Australians and gardeners will tell you this can be a parasitic curse rather than a blessing.

The most bothersome aspect of these commercials—and what has primarily triggered the backlash against them—is the offensive portrayal of animals dying. Frankly, there are scores of more effective ways to communicate frustration about stimulus, tax codes, and other issues than showing animals die. (I suspect elephants are safe from these commercials, but you never know.)

Cain’s defense of these commercials is that you have to depict provocative things in order to grab people’s attention in this “24/7 information overload society.” Otherwise, he says, no one would pay attention.

There is some truth in Cain’s defense of his commercials, but he neglects the fact that commercials can be effective in captivating audiences without upsetting them. Because of the girl’s underdeveloped economic explanations and her problematic metaphors, the Cain Solutions commercials strike most viewers as being grotesque simply to trouble viewers.

When a message is lost or inadequately conveyed, audiences are left to make sense of what’s before them based solely on the content. The content of these commercials is merely a bullheaded girl, settings reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s bleak plays, and violent ends to animals’ lives. The animal cruelty in these commercials subverts the intended points and distracts viewers from what Cain Solutions attempts to address.

These commercials are far from the principles found in I Peter 3 of interacting with others of a different persuasion. Peter calls for believers to interact with others with “gentleness and reverence, and keep a good conscience” (3.15). We are hard-pressed, however, to locate signs of gentleness and reverence in these commercials. Also, considering Paul’s injunction not to offend weaker brothers (Romans 14), the commercial rather blatantly offends Christians (and non-believing viewers, too, for that matter) who value animal rights as cohabiters of the created world.

Eco-journalist Russell McLendon rather unsubtly suggests that we “should be worried about Cain himself.” Let’s not be equivocal: we should be worried about him. USA Today reports that Cain wants his Twitter followers to say if they think the rabbit commercial is offensive. Fortunately, you don’t have to follow people on Twitter to directly share your concerns.

About C. Ryan Knight

C. Ryan Knight teaches English at Randolph Community College in Asheboro, NC, and he lives with his wife outside Greensboro, NC.
Email: knight.cr@gmail.com

  • Daniel

    Disgusting. Content-free criticism that attempts to use emotion to convey a message…of what? The stimulus and the tax code are bad? In what way? What are the specific criticisms?

    This is by very definition propaganda of the worst sort.

  • KSP

    I don’t see these ads as any more “content-free” than much advertising. Images and shock value that lack actual argument have a long history in advertising, so I don’t share Daniel’s apparent shock at this. I think the ads’ points-by-analogy are clear if just as clearly over-simplified. Some of you may be too young to remember this, but I presume these ads intentionally and ironically reference the famous “this is your brain on drugs” anti-drug campaign from decades ago.

    With all that said, however, the use and abuse of animals to make the ads is appalling. I wasn’t aware of these ads, so thanks for bringing them to my attention.

  • http://lecoupdoeil.wordpress.com MKRoss

    And here I thought the fish was supposed to represent Cain’s political career.


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