Dissecting Santorum's Ominous 'Obamaville' Ad

GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum released what may be the hardest-hitting ad of the 2012 campaign. "Welcome to Obamaville," shot and scored like a trailer for a Hollywood horror film, features a split-second flash of President Obama's face superimposed over the image of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Guest host Laura Sullivan speaks to NPR's David Folkenflik about the ad.

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LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

A new online ad from Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum sketches out a dire threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Imagine a small American town two years from now if Obama is re-elected. The wait to see a doctor is ever increasing. Gas prices through the roof, and the freedom of religion under attack.

SULLIVAN: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik periodically dissects the rhetoric and news coverage of this political season. And he joins us now. David, so the ad is called "Welcome to Obamaville," but it's not so much the words, it's the images that struck you.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Yeah, it really did. I mean, you know, the voice alone should give you a hint. But this is truly shot like a horror film. There's a blue palette of the imagery that you see. And it's very stark. There's a little girl sitting outside a home with a peeling wall. There's a deserted shoe on the side of a hill. And then there's - very interestingly, there's these images on television sets of president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...that a world mission and sworn American enemy has become a nuclear threat.

FOLKENFLIK: So that could hardly be more ominous. And yet when you're looking at the pictures of Ahmadinejad on a variety of different television sets, they're briefly, for a split second, you see the image of President Obama in there and then back to Ahmadinejad. I had to go back and watch it two or three times to make sure I had seen what I thought I had. And that's a really interesting and tough punch in some ways to see those images juxtaposed.

SULLIVAN: Well, you talked to Santorum's campaign and the creator of this ad. What were they trying to achieve?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I talked to John Brabender, as you say, he's the senior media strategist for the Santorum camp. And he told me he personally oversaw the production of this video. It's actually a teaser. It's about a minute and five seconds long for an eight-part series that will run on the campaign's website. He says, look, this is not subliminal advertising. He referred to, you know, this famous images from the '60s where people flipped in little notices in the ads that said, you know, buy soda, buy popcorn. He said, we're not doing that.

He said, and this is a direct quote, "What I was trying to do was show that there was going to be this constant back and forth in Iranian-American conflict if Obama is elected president. Was I trying to show something more than that? Absolutely not." He was saying, you know, look, I'm not trying to say that I'm conflating Obama as a threat in a way that Ahmadinejad is a threat.

But it is interesting when you heard that phrase sworn American enemy and a pause, right after that, you saw the image of President Obama. What Brabender said to me last night was, look, he'd be a lot more blatant if he was attempting to conflate the two men.

SULLIVAN: So, what does this ad actually accomplish then?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it accomplishes things on a number of levels. First, it's red meat to the true believers, for the conservative Republicans who are repelled by everything President Obama stands for. This ad offers a stark illustration of the objections they might well have. It lingers in the mind. It's certainly memorable. It's a dystopian vision of an America just a couple of years from now under a second Obama term.

And lastly, I'll say, it may well get people talking about a campaign. You know, Rick Santorum has certainly done some damage to the Romney inevitability hope. That's Governor Mitt Romney, of course, who has the lead in delegates and the lead in money. But Santorum himself - it's hard to see how he could get the nomination. It gets him back in the headlines, as people notice something as bruising and as tough as this ad.

SULLIVAN: NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thank you so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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