Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Big Bird Ad Ruffles Feathers

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Big Bird Ad Ruffles Feathers

Article excerpt

In a way, you've got to sympathize with those beleaguered folks in the Obama campaign advertising shop. Clearly, they were trying to be funny with the Big Bird ad they released last week, which accuses Mitt Romney of ignoring Wall Street excess and going after PBS, instead. The ad is snide, and in a vacuum, it is funny. It's hard to go wrong with footage of Big Bird snoring.

And it's true that the line about firing Big Bird was one brief moment of weakness in Mr. Romney's debate performance. If you're going to talk about defunding PBS -- an idea that has been kicking around Republican circles for years -- it's best not to cite one of the most beloved PBS characters in the same breath. And yes, Twitter went into a sarcastic frenzy after the Big Bird moment.

But here's a communication tip, relevant for both Big Bird and his new friend Barack: It's good to know your medium.

For example, sarcasm works great on Twitter, but in some places, snideness doesn't translate very well -- especially in national political ads. Republicans flayed the Big Bird ad as a small-bore defense of PBS funding. Skeptics pointed out Mr. Obama's own Wall Street ties. Even Sesame Workshop asked the Obama campaign to take the ad down, on the grounds that it didn't want its characters politicized.

But "Sesame Street" isn't always politically pure. Muppets have been enlisted to defend PBS funding in the past, and in 2002, Elmo testified before Congress in favor of more federal spending on music education. "Sesame Street" has gently mocked Fox News, in a segment featuring Oscar the Grouch.

It's just that PBS and Sesame Workshop have always controlled the message -- and have managed to leverage Big Bird's bipartisan hold on our national culture. He's eight feet of warm associations, said Sylvia Chan-Olmsted, a University of Florida professor who has studied the branding of PBS. Even Mr. Romney loves him, and you get the sense that the guy isn't usually nostalgic about animals.

And whatever happens to PBS funding, Big Bird will survive, thanks to all of those Tickle Me Elmo dolls and the other zillion- and-a-half licensed "Sesame Street" products. …

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