In Praise of Clint Eastwood’s Metaphorical “Halftime in America” Superbowl Ad

I’d love your comments on Clint Eastwood’s awesome ad for Obama Chrysler:

Seriously, though, I’m not going to spend much time on the rather absurd issue of whether Clint’s gritty optimism means he is channeling Obama’s gritty optimism, as the Washington Post and conservative commentators claim:

An an ad touting the resurgence of the American auto industry, Clint Eastwood declared that it’s “halftime in America and our second half’s about to begin,” which could be interpreted as a reference to Obama’s second term.

The ad’s themes seem to echo Obama’s own argument that his administration brought the auto industry back from the brink of disaster.

“They almost lost everything,” Eastwood says of Detroit. “But we all pulled together. Now Motor City is fighting again.”

Oh, no, we all pulled together to save Detroit.  And it worked.  I guess Eastwood is a socialist, too, albeit one of those socialists who is tough and successful.  I wonder if he was born in Kenya.

Obviously, anything that offends Karl Rove, “Bush’s brain,” can’t be all bad.  But the reason I’m highlighting the ad is because it is an extended metaphor — arguably the single most effective kind of advertising possible.

I’ll be publishing my book on messaging and persuasion later in the year.  It focuses on the figures of the speech.  As Aristotle said, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor” (see “How to be as persuasive as Lincoln, Part 3.”  So I’ll be focusing more on the use of rhetoric in  politics and popular culture this year.

Extended metaphor is, for me, the most important rhetorical device. This figure is at the heart of some of Lincoln’s greatest speeches and Shakespeare’s greatest plays (see “How Lincoln framed his picture-perfect Gettysburg Address“).

The Elizabethan era book The Garden of Eloquence by Henry Peacham explains the potency of this figure: It “serves most aptly to ingrain the lively images of things, and to present them under deep shadows to the contemplation of the mind, wherein wit and judgement take pleasure, and the remembrance receives a longer lasting impression.”

Using an extended metaphor himself, Peacham explains that while a simple metaphor “may be compared to a star in respect of beauty, brightness and direction,” an extended metaphor may be “fully likened to a figure compounded of many stars … which we may call a constellation.” No wonder this figure is so widely used. Who wouldn’t want to have their words achieve the impact and longevity of heavenly images like the Big Dipper or Orion?

Winning political campaigns use extended metaphors.  And this ad is certainly reminiscent of one considered to be among the most effective a political ads of all time:

This ad was a perfect metaphor for Reagan’s optimism.  As I discuss in the book, Reagan himself loved to use metaphors, and the use of metaphors make presidents appear more visionary.

One of Obama’s great failings as a speechmaker is that he doesn’t use many metaphors.  That’s one of the ways you can tell this that wasn’t put together by his dreadful and overly literal-minded messaging team.

Any candidate, indeed anyone seeking to be memorable and persuasive, would do well to learn the message from these two ads:  Extended metaphors work.


19 Responses to In Praise of Clint Eastwood’s Metaphorical “Halftime in America” Superbowl Ad

  1. BillD says:

    When I saw this ad during the game, my impression was: ‘Wow, the best possible ad possible for Obama.” Not only that, but I’ve heard that the number of viewers waa s new record.

  2. Jeff H says:

    (On a different but not unrelated subject)

    “It’s turkeys all the way down.”

    That’s the closing sentence in a recent piece by George Monbiot, ‘The Right’s Stupidity Spreads, Enabled by a Too-polite Left’.

    It’s a piece worth noting, and very relevant to the climate change problem and the (recent?) recognition that a very big part of the reason that climate change isn’t getting much discussion and media coverage is that President Obama is not talking about it. You can find Monbiot’s piece here:

    To be clear, I’m not particularly fond of labels like ‘right’ and ‘left’. There are too many different issues involved, and trying to categorize things into two buckets is often part of the problem. But the essential points in Monbiot’s piece are worth noting.

    With that context, I’ll come back to an immediate issue: We have heard, in recent posts, that one of the chief reasons that climate change isn’t in the public spotlight is that President Obama isn’t giving it the attention that it deserves and demands. His inattentiveness to climate change is enabling a lack of media attention, a deeply insufficient public dialogue, and an encroachment of increasing “stupidity” (in explicit and subtle forms) from the deniers and Repubs. Monbiot’s article begins with a title that implies a “Too-polite Left”, but another main theme is that the problem may also be a too-strategically-stupid left, and he closes with the phrase noted above, “It’s turkeys all the way down.”

    So again, the concrete question: What are WE going to DO about that? Here I mean, what are we going to DO about the fact that President Obama will have to PUT climate change into the public dialogue, loudly and clearly, in a way that the issue deserves and requires, if we are going to get anywhere?

    Once again, it’s a concrete question, and an urgent one. Will it be raised and discussed on CP? Please.



  3. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe wrote: “I’d love your comments on Clint Eastwood’s awesome ad for Chrysler”

    It’s a TV commercial.

    For an industry that sells millions of fossil fuel-burning vehicles every year in the USA alone.

    Would we praise a Super Bowl ad for ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, or BP, that portrayed their profits as the cause for some kind of patriotic pride?

    If not, why praise a Super Bowl ad that extols the manufacture of more and more cars that guzzle the gasoline that generates the tens of billions of dollars in oil company profits that we’ve been reading about lately on this site?

  4. M Tucker says:

    Who would have thought that Republicans would make war on American auto manufacturers? Who would have thought that a commercial about how we all pulled together and saved Detroit would be seen by Republicans as a Democratic ad? Who would have ever associated Clint Eastwood with Barack Obama? Well, this is another fine mess the Republican brain trust has managed to concoct and it will be amusing to see how the liberals squander the opportunity. They always do because the interests of the American worker and the interests of many liberals to not always line up.

  5. The “morning in America” theme was very clear to me when I saw the ad. What’s amazing to me is watching the Republicans fall into the role William Safire penned “nattering nabobs of negativism”.

    This ad was about cars, not Obama, but it’s pretty clear that Obama is in the role of Reagan and Republicans are sounding like losers.

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    The ad is beautiful, and you have to like Clint Eastwood, but there’s a problem, as Secular pointed out. Chrysler lags all of the other auto companies in building electric or hybrid vehicles. Any company with that policy deserves to be punished in the marketplace.

  7. Jeff H says:

    Sergio Marchionne, Peter Harf, The Ad That Wasn’t — and pass me a strong beer, please!

    Where to begin?

    First, I’m a big fan of Clint Eastwood’s, and I assume that his intentions were good. In most ways, I loved the ad. Bravo!

    That said, I’ll use this opportunity to point out some things that many, and probably most, Superbowl watchers may not realize. These things tell part of the story about some of the issues we face.

    So, who is Sergio Marchionne and what does he have to do with anything? Well, he’s the head of Fiat (Italian company) and also the head of Chrysler, as far as I can tell. You see, Fiat owns nearly 60 percent of Chrysler (the UAW owns the other 40 percent) according to Wikipedia. So, this great American company, that’s on a comeback and looking forward to a great second half according to the ad, is owned mostly by an Italian car company. Here, I’m not critiquing Chrysler, Fiat, or the ad, and I’m certainly glad that the American car industry has at least found some stability and a second life, so to speak. But a person can’t understand the larger picture unless he/she understands this sort of thing: Fiat owns a majority of this once-great American company, Chrysler.

    Equally (perhaps more) interesting, who is Peter Harf? Well, he’s the Chairman of A-B InBev (Anheuser-Busch InBev), the European company that now owns Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Bud and all those beer commercials we saw during the Superbowl. Peter is the Chairman, a citizen of Germany, and (as another indication of how the global economy works) a Harvard MBA who began his career at the Boston Consulting Group. (I wonder if he knows Mitt, who was at Bain?)

    In any case, Budweiser beer — most people probably still think of Anheuser-Busch as an American company — is brought to you by A-B InBev.

    (One of the first Bud commercials during the Superbowl was actually a somewhat eerie, and truthful, ad that showed a huge and modern, or futuristic, brewery and bottling operation that was totally automated: there wasn’t a person in the plant; it was full of machines automatically filling bottles of beer. So here we have it: a presumably American company, but actually owned by a larger European company, emphasizing consumption to an American audience (drink Bud, and lots of it!) but at the same time showing the ultra-modern and almost labor-free efficiency of modern breweries and bottling operations. A global company hyping consumption but actually employing relatively few people (in manufacturing anyhow) because of increasing automation. Presently run by a German citizen who was a Harvard MBA who started at BCG.

    (To be clear, again, the point is not that any of this is ‘bad’ per se. Instead, it’s that we misunderstand the picture — globalization, automation, employment, consumption, and so forth — unless we understand these sorts of things.)

    But I digress. Perhaps the most important comment I can offer about the Clint-Chrysler ad is this: that it wasn’t about climate change. In other words, the most revealing ad of the Superbowl was the ad that wasn’t! That is, in a world of ads and huge Superbowl audiences, and in a world where individuals or companies or other institutions can run ads, it’s quite revealing that there were no bold ads, public messages, or anything else about the largest problem we’re facing: climate change.

    And indeed, we should see that as indicative of a striking failure of our own efforts. How is it that an event that has “the highest TV audience of all time” (that’s what I heard, although I’m not sure it’s correct) comes and goes without any message about climate change? Why didn’t Clint — or someone like him, or a group of people — do an excellent and moving ad about climate change?

    The silence about climate change is deafening. Sometimes it makes me wonder: are we (the movement) incompetent, or do we not really want to succeed?

    When I reflect on yesterday, I think the most meaningful message of all — if it was sincere — actually was part of Madonna’s halftime show: a message in support of world peace. Bravo to Madonna, and Bravo to Clint. But it was a huge missed opportunity for the climate change message.



  8. When I saw this ad I was keeping kids from fighting, trying to jam down a hot dog, balancing a beer on the sofa arm, and I stopped, riveted. It reminded me of the new Springsteen song “we take care of our own,” which sounds hopelessly jingoistic at first (“Wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own”) but is really getting at the same ideas he pursued in “Born in the USA.” What’s left when the American dream doesn’t pan out, when you realize the government that was supposed to look out for you isn’t, so much, when less savory motives are driving your leaders…what do you do? There’s a societal brokenness that Eastwood and Springsteen are getting at, and they are suggesting that Americans are uniquely suited and equipped to overcome it–our success is rooted in unity and collectivism. As Patty Limerick has pointed out, the west wasn’t won by rugged individuals, but by diverse coalitions. Yes, we bailed out GM, but in return the company went from the king of the greenwashers to supporting aggressive CAFE standards and building efficient small cars and getting back to being the #1 automaker in the world. We beaten down climate soldiers can use any signs of hope we can find, and I’m pleased to have the badassery of Eastwood and Springsteen delivering the message.

  9. Jeff H says:

    Joe, will you be running Bill McKibben’s latest piece, ‘The Great Carbon Bubble: Why The Fossil Fuel Industry Fights So Hard’? It’s a very helpful article, and it would be great for readers here to be able to comment on it.



  10. Joe Romm says:

    I will. Beat my Tar Sands quota for today.

  11. Linda says:

    I, too was riveted by the ad. Political? What isn’t these days? But the thought that we’ve blown the whistle and are taking a ‘time out’ before getting back to solving the issues of these times, that thought gives me a new energy I didn’t know I had. I’m tired of the bickering. I want these men and women we elected to use their proclaimed love of country to pull together and win this thing.

  12. Scrooge says:

    Rove as usual should have handled it better. Eastwood who I don’t think is any fan of Obamas ran a feel good America commercial. Rove came across as anti american. It should be America first and parties second, some politicians and news networks have a problem with that.

  13. Jay Alt says:

    #2. Jeff H asks- “So again, the concrete question: What are WE going to DO about that? Here I mean, what are we going to DO about the fact that President Obama will have to PUT climate change into the public dialogue, loudly and clearly, in a way that the issue deserves and requires, if we are going to get anywhere?”

    The Tea Party does it with the threat they’ll unhinge and vote in somebody else. It works with the help of media loudmouths.
    Try telling local democrats you’ll vote green on the national ticket. And will look hard at green options for their own seats.
    When it dawns on them that Obama no longer has any green coattails, they’ll bring up the issues (change that to demands!) to him themselves.

  14. Dick Smith says:

    Speaking of messaging. Since there is nothing that would change the public awareness faster than Obama saying the words “global warming” or “climate change” again and again, why aren’t we pressing him to say it?

    Why isn’t Obama being asked at every campaign stop (with signs and questions) why he can’t seem to say the words “global warming” or “climate change”?

    He doesn’t need congressional approval to say the words. Why is he getting a pass?

  15. Mark Shapiro says:

    Joe –

    What is an extended metaphor for AGW?
    What is an extended metaphor for clean energy?

    Which metaphor will turn Americans away from profitable, desirable fossil fuels and toward unfamiliar efficiency and renewables?

  16. You know what I say?

    Screw the Washington Post and all the conservatives who criticize this ad!

    This ad reminds us of who we are as a people and what we need to do.

    The ad is beautiful and brought tears to my eyes.

  17. Paul Magnus says:


  18. Gail Zawacki says:

    Ha, personally I thought this ad is a more accurate portrayal of where we are headed:

    On a more serious note, this video of the AGU meeting on messaging is instructive:

  19. Susan says:

    If only they had used one of their smaller cars instead of the SUVs in the background. We just can’t afford to go back to “an SUV in every driveway” when the economy improves. Other than that I thought that for a commercial it was quite powerful.