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Where there's ad smoke, there's ... what?

Posted: November 2, 2011 - 12:00am

What was that?

That’s the question of the week as pundits, prognosticators, and the public try to interpret a Herman Cain Web commercial that went viral.

The low-budget-looking spot predominantly features Cain senior adviser Mark Block, who is standing outdoors and telling supporters: “Tomorrow is one day closer to the White House. I really believe that Herman Cain will put united back in the United States of America, and if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be here.”

But it is what comes next that has people scratching their heads. In a moment straight out of “Mad Men,” Block inhales from his cigarette and blows the smoke toward the camera. The screen then shifts to a close shot of Herman Cain, who fashions a slowly emerging smile.

The nation is $14 trillion in debt, unemployment is at about 9 percent, and there are questions being raised about the pace of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, but the most buzz on the presidential bandwagon in the last week was about the drag Block took on a butt.

Theories abound as to the intent. While I think this was strictly a publicity move, part of me believes it could also be a direct appeal to the 20 percent of the nation who still smoke (no one ever asks for their votes). Or a subliminal reference to President Obama’s own smoking habit. (Hey, at least the Cain staffers are transparent about their vices.) Or what you get when you film a commercial for $50. When I ran these thoughts past MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, he added another:

“The American people are so angry right now, so frustrated with control over their lives, that they want to be able to have that impulsive ability to be who they are. And that may include smoking. It may not include smoking. We’re so tired of being controlled that when you show you’re not under control, that you’re just an individual American with your own habits (and maybe bad habits), you can be that person. And I think that’s what the country wants. They’re enraged at being pushed around by everybody and that’s what I think it is.”

Guess who agrees? Mark Block, the smoker himself.

When I spoke to him this week, Block told me that he never “anticipated the attention it would receive.”

“When we filmed it, the main purpose was to get the message out to activists that the Cain campaign was on a roll and up in the polls,” Block said. But when I explained Matthews’ assessment, Block acknowledged that he intended to cause “a little controversy” because “that’s the way Block is,” referring to himself in the third person.

“There is a standing joke to let Block be Block because he lets Herman be Herman,” he continued.

“When people are looking for me and I’m not in a meeting, just like I am talking to you, I am standing outside on the phone with a cup of coffee and with a cigarette,” he said. “It’s my choice. I’m not condoning it. I wouldn’t suggest anyone take up the habit. It’s Block being Block.”

By that logic, the commercial is a 2012 version of the “Don’t tread on me” edict found on Gadsden flags from the Revolutionary War era. Or it’s a retrospective explanation of something that started more innocuously as a bit of a goof.

Neil Oxman, the legendary political adman based in Philadelphia, had a different assessment altogether.

“It’s not a commercial for TV,” he said. “It’s 56 seconds long. As you know, they don’t sell 56-second spots on TV. It’s meant for the Internet — to get people talking and to help raise money. It certainly has gotten people talking.”

Indeed. No wonder Block refused my $1,000 wager that he’d soon be Saturday Night Live fodder, while nevertheless promising he’d be watching the program. The only thing more certain than that is the prospect of a sequel.

• Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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