The coded message behind the smoking and drinking in his ads
Herman Cain's most famous online ad features his campaign director smoking a cigarette after a vigorous endorsement of his boss. Another features an actor drinking a margarita — on the job — while he praises Cain's accomplishments.
Both stand out in a type of advertising that usually strives to be desperately wholesome.
Cain's decision to include images of booze and smokes sends the coded messages that he's tough, not preachy, and doesn't want the government infringing on personal freedoms.
At least he's consistent: As a lobbyist, Cain worked against regulations that would have hurt alcohol and tobacco sales, even in cases where advocates said limits could save lives.
His organization received tobacco dollars in return.
Cain's attempts to project a rebellious, anti-establishment image don't go too far. He doesn't want to legalize marijuana or other drugs, for example. Both alcohol and cigarettes are legal and mainstream — President Obama is an occasional smoker who has struggled to stop lighting up.
After stepping down as the CEO of Godfather's Pizza in 1996, Cain became the head lobbyist of the National Restaurant Association, a job in which he fought bans on smoking in restaurants.
Story continues after Conan O'Brien parody videos:
He also opposed a campaign to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent. Restaurants feared the lower limit would hurt sales, but safety advocates believed it would decrease DUIs. They ultimately prevailed.
The liberal group ThinkProgress has found a UC San Francisco trove of tobacco industry documents that showed Cain lobbied on behalf of R.J. Reynolds and Phillip Morris, and that his lobbying group, in turn, received generous contributions.
In one email included in the documents, RJR official Rob Meyne noted, in 1999, that Cain planned a run for president. Meyne added dismissively: "Nice to have goals, huh?"
Rejecting the possibility of a viable Cain candidacy in 2000, Meyne added: "One can speculate on his real goals: perhaps to gain exposure for a future run; perhaps hoping to be someone's V.P.; perhaps he really thinks he can win; perhaps he wants a cabinet appointment. In any event, Cain brings some positives; he is a genuine 'anti-government mandate' conservative, who happens to be an African-American. He is a wonderful speaker, and would be an effective and charismatic candidate. He Is also good on our issues."
Cain has said there was no secret message in the smoking ad, in which his campaign manager, Mark Block, takes a long drag. Cain said the ad is "hilarious" in a Fox News interview.
"We weren't trying to send any subliminal message whatsoever," he said. "Many of us found it hilarious, because we know Mark Block."
The ad inspired a slew of parodies, including one on "Conan" in which a Cain supporter extols his virtues and then chugs tequila.
But satire couldn't keep up with reality: Two months before the parody, another Cain ad debuted featuring "Justified" actor Nick Searcy sipping from a melon mango margarita — yeck — while praising Cain. The ad portays Searcy enjoying the drink during a momentary break in filming.
Both ads could be perceived as bait for namby-pamby do-gooders to object to any smoking or drinking whatsoever, even fictitious drinking by an actor mocking other coddled actors. That would make Cain seem relaxed and reasonable by comparison.
But the advocates he has clashed with in the past have tried to restrict indoor smoking and binge drinkers from hitting the road, not stop actors from sipping fruity cocktails.
The New York Times noted that after Cain defended the 0.10 legal limit in an Omaha World-Herald editorial, he earned a rejoinder from Mothers Against Drunk Driving board member Diane Riibe.
"Mr. Cain and those he represents are in the business of selling alcohol," Riibe wrote, "not saving lives."