Pawlenty's 'Courage' video strikes a strong conservative chord

Kaboom. That's the sound of Tim Pawlenty's new Web video, done to promote his book, "Courage to Stand." The video reverberates, and not just because of the distorted explosions on the soundtrack.

The video already has over 130,000 Web views, and I'm betting 200 million more put him in reach of the Rose Garden. Of course, my political predictions have about the same value as my stock picks, so hold on placing that bet.

I received the link when I was sitting with a group of young creative class types, and they had a strong negative reaction. One accused it of fear mongering. I thought it portrayed the indomitable American spirit. An age thing?

Pawlenty's buzz word is freedom, and as single-word campaign slogans go, this one seems solid. It telegraphs conservative. It's big enough to encompass current ideas: freedom from government debt, freedom from health care bureaucracy, freedom to pursue the American dream.

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But if it only nailed the conservative message, it wouldn't have gotten a rise from my friends. The talking head video that was on Pawlenty's site before this one made the same claims; the difference is production value.

"Courage to Stand," the video, opens with a young Muhammad Ali at the Olympics. It proceeds to show the triumphs of the space race, civil rights, the fall of the Berlin Wall -- images that resonate with red and blue alike as portraying an ascendant America.

So far so good, but still in danger of becoming "found" video wallpaper. So they made the piece disorienting. From the opening timpani to staccato strings to fractured explosions, the soundtrack demands attention.

Visually, there are extreme angles, visual static, and an audience of young people staged to look like the automatons of Apple's iconic 1984 commercial (or the film "Metropolis"). They appear to be in a zombie state, eyes fixed on Big Brother.

Any good focus group would have killed those scenes. Are you kidding? An Orwellian Pawlenty? How does that portray freedom? Back to the drawing board.

But those are exactly the scenes that, inexplicably, put the video over the top. What's wrong is what makes it right for the Pawlenty cause.

Also compelling is that this is a commercial. It's not social media (Modern Media Commandment One: Being on the Web doth not make you social). It's old-school, one-way communication.

The prevailing wisdom -- Obama-era wisdom -- is that social rules the day. But Obama was talking to progressives who were social-media fluent. They had been ready to storm the castle for eight long years, and all he did was tell them where to find the torches and pitchforks and let them take it from there.

I remember getting homemade Obama logos from friends on Facebook and thinking, Gosh, you're doing free logos for somebody I've never heard of. Good luck with that. But what looked homemade turned out to be the most sophisticated marketing campaign in history.

So why does Pawlenty choose to do a commercial in the era of social media? Because, on the Web, this is the closest thing to television, and television is still the quickest way to raise a profile, especially for Pawlenty's audience. Also, conservatives are a little less social-media savvy, and, unless they're Tea drinkers, they don't like to show off their conservatism, except in a pocket square.

How many conservatives put bumper stickers on their cars? How many wear message tee shirts? How many rant about an issue in public, unless it's an erratic lane change?

I remember offering Pawlenty some priceless wisdom during the 2002 governor's race. I said: Set your hair on fire. Do something drastic to break through the noise.

He ignored my advice and won handily.

Now, in this video, it appears he has set his hair on fire. I think it will bring him some heat on the political charts. But like I said, don't take my bets.


John Olson works in marketing in Minneapolis.