The National Republican Congressional Committee this morning posted what was supposed to be a clever riff on HBO’s hit fantasy series Game of Thrones: an interactive map called “Game of Dems.” The feature was supposed to highlight the various alliances and supporters behind Democrats like Elise Gomez Reyes. It’s a cute idea, with just one problem in its execution. The map the NRCC produced looks a lot more like the maps of Middle Earth from J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings franchise, down to the fonts and brushwork illustrating mountains, than it does any extant map of Westeros or Essos, the continents where George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire is set. Given that there’s a very comprehensive set of Game of Thrones maps extant and available for purchase, this oversight doesn’t just make the NRCC looks dumb: it makes them look lazy or cheap, distracting from the actual message they were trying to get across, which is not a bad one.
This seems like it’s a silly thing to harp over, but it gets at an important point. Conservatives vacillate back and forth between bashing popular culture for its amorality or immorality, or lack of positive portrayals of conservative characters and conservative values, and badly wanting to exploit pop culture tropes and develop their own benches of celebrity spokesmen. But it’s only possible to do the latter if you make a deep study of popular culture, so that you have a sense of what’s relevant to mass–and particularly youth–audiences, and so you can riff off culture and imitate its cadences.
Witness the debut today of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s public Twitter feed. The picture her staff selected for her profile is the same one made famous by a Tumblr called Texts from Hillary, which imagined her in hilarious correspondence with celebrities like Meryl Streep and other political figures like Mitt Romney. Her first tweet from the account was a shout-out to the followers of that Tumblr, letting them know that “I’ll take it from here.” Her biography on the site, in addition to her other accomplishments, lists her as a ” hair icon, pantsuit aficionado,” both riffs on traits that she’s been criticized for in the past, and that she’s successfully made light of, most notably referring to her supporters as “the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit” at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Where the Republicans tried to bash Democrats and came across as clueless about the very franchise they were trying to exploit, Clinton’s twitter feed makes her look Aware Of All Internet Traditions. Whether fine-grained internet jokes on that level are necessary for a political campaign, they’re a way of creating clever buzz and positive micro-news cycles for people who can employ them deftly. But screwing up pop or internet culture references damages both the message you were trying to get across with them, and your own cool quotient. If you want to sit at the table with the kids playing Dungeons and Dragons and debating Game of Thrones rather than flipping it over and calling us dorks, you might want to know at least the basics before you try to act like an expert.