I’ve repeatedly raised questions about whether Minnesota Senate candidate Al Franken’s wiseacre act can sell in Lake Woebegone. And the recent Star Tribune gossip column item about Franken allegedly mocking a conservative Carleton College student (not a misprint) renews concerns about how Al’s incendiary talk radio style will mesh with Minnesota Nice.
But I have to say Franken’s “Mrs. Molin” television ad is political advertising that belongs at the top-of-the-class.
Franken has a daunting strategic communications “to do” list in front of him. He needs to remind people that he grew up in Minnesota, without sounding defensive or like he is trying too hard. He needs to show he’s a serious guy without papering over the rest of who he is. If he tries to mask his smart-ass personality with prototypical political programming, Minnesotans’ BS Meters will go mad. And in the process, he would rob himself of his greatest asset, his distinctiveness.
That’s a tricky communications assignment, and most consultants would get it wrong. With this ad, Franken’s consultant got it right.
In a world polluted by prosaic, pre-fabricated political ads, Mrs. Molin comes to the rescue. Mrs. Molin, Franken’s Energizer Bunny of a fourth grade teacher, repeatedly reminds us that Allan grew up in Minnesota. Not by beating us over the head with it, but with spry storytelling.
Mrs. Molin brags on Allan endlessly, but she does it with credibility that standard political ads lack. It’s palatable, cute even, when a teacher points out that her star pupil went to Harvard and writes books, because that’s what proud teachers do.
Mrs. Moline even good-naturedly corrects her pupil for spinning himself as a “satirist” instead of a “comedian,” to the student’s great amusement. That playful banter spotlights an unaffected, self-effacing Midwesterner who can laugh at himself and respect his elders, not a big shot who went all East Coast on us, or a self-absorbed, thin-skinned megalomaniac, like the last celebrity Minnesota elected.
By bridging the gap between little Allan and big Al, the ad begins to bridge the Grand Canyon-sized cultural gap between Saturday Night Live and Saturday night potlucks. For instance, “married for 32 years” isn’t a phrase you read in many People magazine profiles.
At same time, the essential Al Franken is not hidden away. The wisecracking is still there, but so is the less familiar side.
Importantly, the Mrs. Molin ad starts to disarm some major Franken vulnerabilities – “not from here,” “not in touch with us culturally,” and “too big for his celebrity britches” — without getting overly defensive or boastful. Mrs. Molin’s kind words feels almost akin to an endorsement from the Minnesota Church Basement Gals Association, a key cultural constituency in the Land of 10,000 Hotdishes.
Is the ad as entertaining as the best of the Super Bowl ads? No. But it’s much more entertaining than other political ads, and unlike most of those entertaining Super Bowl ads, this one is actually strategic and effective.
Love Al(lan) or loathe him, he has produced a fine piece of political advertising. He better find himself a mighty shiny apple for Mrs. Molin.
– Joe(seph) Loveland