Beloved children’s television character Big Bird soared to new heights in American politics Tuesday with the release of a new TV ad by US President Barack Obama accusing Republican challenger Mitt Romney of cracking down on the educational show “Sesame Street” rather than on Wall Street.
The spot follows Romney’s vow in last week’s presidential debate to end federal funding for Sesame Street’s broadcaster, PBS, which has made the 8-foot-tall Big Bird an icon for generations of children.
“Big. Yellow. A menace to our economy. Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about, it’s Sesame Street,” the ad’s voiceover says ominously.
While the ad has an air of irony and puckishness about it, it sparked serious responses from Romney, fellow Republicans, and from Sesame Street itself.
Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind the children’s show, said in a statement Tuesday that it does not “endorse candidates or participate in political campaigns.”
“We have approved no campaign ads, and as is our general practice, have requested that the ad be taken down,” the organization said in the statement.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Tuesday told reporters on the president’s plane, Air Force One, that Sesame Workshop’s request was under review.
“It doesn’t change the fact that there’s only one candidate in this race who is going to continue to fight for Big Bird and Elmo, and he’s riding on this plane,” CBS News cited Psaki as saying.
“There’s been a strong grassroots outcry over the attacks on Big Bird,” she added, CBS News reported. “This is something that mothers across the country are alarmed about, and we’re tapping into that.”
Speaking on the campaign trail in the state of Iowa Tuesday, Romney suggested Obama spend more time talking about saving jobs rather than children’s shows.
“You have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird,” Romney said.
Unlike the so-called “Swift Boat” ads in 2004 questioning Democratic candidate John Kerry’s military record, the Big Bird ad was clearly designed for fun and not to seriously influence voter opinion, said John Geer, author of “In Defense of Negativity: Attack Advertising in Presidential Campaigns.”
“It’s not a nasty ad,” said Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University. “I suspect it will be little more than a short-term kerfuffle.”
Ironically, the Big Bird ad released Tuesday may even serve to highlight the fact that under the Obama administration, no senior Wall Street executives have faced criminal prosecution for their role in the 2008 financial crisis, former federal financial regulators and securities law experts said.
The ad jokingly suggests Romney is lumping Big Bird together with three high-profile businessmen convicted for financial crimes: former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, former Tyco chairman Dennis Kozlowski, and Ponzi scheme artist Bernard Madoff.
None of the crimes these individuals were found guilty of contributed to the 2008 crisis, said Peter Henning, a former senior attorney with the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement division, who later investigated and prosecuted bank fraud with the US Department of Justice.
“This could be laid at the president’s door,” said Henning, a professor of law at Wayne State University. “He’s been the president for the past four years.”
Lay and Kozlowski were convicted during George W. Bush’s presidency, while Madoff’s financial period collapsed precisely because of onset of the financial crisis, Henning noted.
Elizabeth Nowicki, a professor at Tulane University Law School, said the three individuals—described as “gluttons of greed” in the spot—were likely an attempt to “evoke public outrage and emotion” rather than address the fine print of the financial crisis.
“To anyone who’s really paying attention to the underlying cause of the current state of the economy, those three references have nothing to do with the precarious position we find ourselves in,” Nowicki said.