In 1984 Ronald Reagan was running for re-election as President.
His campaign theme was “It’s Morning In America”.
It was unashamedly emotional and patriotic.
The whole mood was: if you’re proud to be an American you’ll vote for Ronald Reagan.
At that time a song by Bruce Springsteen was top of the charts.
A rock and roll anthem with a great chorus: “Born In The USA”.
Reagan supporters immediately adopted it as their campaign song. The patriotic chorus, the sense of pride: it was a perfect fit with “It’s Morning In America”.
There was just one small detail they seemed to have missed.
“Born In The USA” isn’t a patriotic song.
Quite the opposite in fact.
The lyrics are completely ironic, about the betrayal of the American dream that everyone was sold.
Bruce Springsteen sings in the first verse:
“Born down in a dead man’s town.
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground.
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much,
Until you spend half your life just covering up.”
Then Springsteen sings of the betrayal of the Vietnam War:
“Sent me off to a foreign land,
To go and kill the yellow man.”
The song ends on the betrayal of returning home to no jobs:
“Down in the shadow of the penitentiary,
Out by the gas fires of the refinery.
I’m ten years burning down the road,
Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.”
The triumphal chorus, “Born in the USA”, is meant to be an ironic counterpoint to the harsh reality.
But as happens so often, irony doesn’t work.
It’s too subtle.
People took the chorus literally.
Reagan himself used Springsteen in a speech:
“America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs many young Americans admire, like New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”
Springsteen banned Reagan from using the song and tried to make it clear that it was ironic.
In a Rolling Stone interview, he said “People have a need to feel good about the country they live in. But that need is getting manipulated and exploited. You see Reagan’s election ads on TV: “It’s morning in America” and you say “Well it’s not morning in Pittsburgh”.
But nobody paid any attention.
Ronald Reagan was elected President in a landslide.
And Bruce Springsteen’s record sold over ten million copies.
Shit-kicking rednecks loved them both.
It’s a mistake people in the mass-communication business make.
Irony can work amongst HIGH-involvement consumers.
Where people are paying attention to every word.
But amongst LOW-involvement consumers, irony doesn’t work because it’s too subtle.
Most voters are LOW-involvement consumers.
In fact most people are LOW-involvement consumers.
They aren’t interested in details.
They aren’t paying attention to each carefully crafted word.
So they hear what they assume is there.