Advertising is all about beautiful people (aka supermodels), looking beautiful, acting beautiful, and being beautiful while using the sponsor’s product. While this type of advertising is easy on the eyes, there is so much, it can become like wallpaper, blending into the background, barely attracting attention. This week, a new presidential campaign tv ad launched that so jarringly broke the beauty mold that it was all that every media pundit has focused on ever since. I’m talking about Herman Cain’s Smoking Man spot.

The Smoking Man (not to be confused with that mysterious X Files figure) is actually Cain’s Chief of Staff, Mark Block, who while delivering a weirdly cadenced but believably impassioned endorsement of his boss, proceeds to literally blow smoke, because he is enjoying a cigarette outside.

What is going on here? How can a man responsible for helping his boss project a positive, electable image allow himself to be videotaped matter-of-factly puffing on a cigarette. Commentators across the political spectrum, almost in unison, wondered aloud why he would set such a bad example for young people. Hint: it wasn’t by accident!

It is hard to stun people in 2011, but amazingly, this ad has managed to move the meter off the chart. The question is why? Cigarettes are a legal product. They appear often in popular entertainment (films, tv shows, and music videos). Our current president has been known to sneak outside the White House to light up. So, why is this ad so surprising?

It’s been a ridiculously long time since anyone in a tv ad smoked (except for an anti-smoking PSA). And cigarettes while legal are perhaps the most heavily regulated products on the market (with even more regulations proposed). And now, we’re getting to the crux of this message — the current regulatory and capriciously restrictive environment of the United States. At a time when people on the right, left, and in the center are fed up with feelings of powerlessness, it is strangely liberating to see a man in a tv ad smoking a cigarette. It is un-PC. It is unhealthy. It is unnervingly appealing in a defy the nanny-state way.

Already the spot’s YouTube page has attracted nearly one million visitors. Less than 10,000 have weighed in to “like” or “dislike”, but the dislikes are running well ahead, not exactly a scientific poll, but a trend nonetheless.

It is too early to tell whether this is a spark for the Cain campaign or just a weird reminder that America is still free even if the Marlboro Man isn’t allowed to ride the broadcast range anymore.

Update: Election year news cycles are notoriously short. It’s exactly one week later and Mr. Cain is dealing with fire instead of smoke this week. So far, the sexual harassment allegations are sketchy, but the candidate’s handling of the media questioning has been spotty at best. Consistency and accuracy of story is critical when it comes to crisis PR.  If you believe the old adage that this is no BAD PR, Mr. Cain has had two news-dominating weeks.

When is the last time you saw a man smoke a cigarette in a TV spot?

When is the last time you saw a man smoke a cigarette in a TV spot?

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