Sex Sells: A Rhetorical Analysis of Barack Obama’s “Sex on TV 4” Speech To say that American culture today is influenced, primarily, by the mass media that we consume on a daily basis would be an understatement. Considering the media’s enormous power to influence it’s audience, one would expect there to be responsibilities and obligations to be upheld by those in charge of these media entities.
In a speech held in Washington D. C. On November 9, 2005, then Senator Barack Obama of Illinois addressed a group of top executives from major broadcasting and media corporations in response to a study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation call “SexonTV4 Report”. This study focused on the amount of sexual content being aired on television.
Senator Obama’s speech, however, focused not on quantity, but on the effect that this content has on our children and the overall effect on our culture, His primary claims are that the exponential growth of mass media and other media in our culture is making it difficult for parents to instill positive values in their children and that the actual messages being communicated to children are responsible for an overall coarsening of our culture.
This speech was given as a keynote address to persuade those broadcasting and media executives in attendance to acknowledge at he growing concern over their media’s content and to take responsibility in making the changes necessary to improve the troubling situation. Although Obama’s primary audience is the media, his words also speak to parents as he encourages them to take a more active role in monitoring their kid’s media consumption. Through his use of personal testimony and vivid comparisons and contrasts, Senator Barack Obama makes a strong call to action for our countries mass media organizations and parents.
Senator Barack Obama begins his keynote address by establishing his position as a father above that of a politician. He says, “This is a subject many of us come to, not as politicians or policy makers, but as parents most of all” (1). By personalizing the issue, Obama is able to remove the political boundaries and ease the defenses of those to whom he is speaking. The nature of this speech is quite accusatory; however, by approaching the problem from the perspective of a parent establishes common ground with the audience, making them more willing and able to understand and agree with his argument.
Senator Obama uses lots of “we” and “us” statements throughout his speech, further confirming that he and the audience are part of the same team. For parents, or any person concerned with the well-being of children, the impact of consuming so much media is a concern. As Obama says, “… we try to instill in our children a sense of what’s right and wrong; a sense of what’s important, of what’s worth striving for. As best we can, we also try to shield them from the harsher elements of life, and introduce them to the realities of adulthood at the appropriate age” (1).
At this point, it seems that Obama is setting the standard of what a good parent looks like and by using “we” statements he is creating a unified front of parents. So when he goes on to question them, saying, “What do we do when bad television becomes the enemy of good parenting” (3), he has effectively won them over based on their position as a parent, regardless of their political and financial motivations. Along with his ability to personalize the argument by establishing common ground, the Senator frequently uses vivid comparisons and contrasts to emphasize the impact that the media is having on our children and on our culture as a whole.
He points out that, “… the adult content in Schindler’s List is far different from the type on Desperate Housewives, and the violence in Saving Private Ryan is not the same as the kind our kids try to imitate in some of the most popular video games” (2). By clarifying what types of media content are in question, Obama is able to deflect some of the possible oppositions from the audience. For example, some may have argued that we can not shelter our kids too much from the realities of life.
Sex and violence do exist and to pretend that they do not would do more harm than good. However, his concern is not necessarily the actual content, itself, but the underlying message that is being sent to our children. Obama reiterates this point again by using another comparison/contrast appeal, saying, “We don’t teach our children that healthy relationships involve drunken, naked parties in a hot tub with strangers – but that’s what they see when they turn on The Real World.
We don’t teach them to express their anger by seeing how much blood they can draw with a round of ammo – but that’s what they learn in the most popular video games. And we don’t teach our kids that the height of success is inheriting a family fortune to buy Gucci bags without ever working a serious day in your life – but that’s how Paris Hilton gets by on The Simple Life” (2). This powerful statement relies on the “we are all good parents” mentality that he had already established, and further appeals to the moral otivations of the audience. Since the parents to whom Obama is speaking also happen to be in charge of some of the main broadcasting and media corporations in the country, they are more inclined to become part of the solution. This is a well coordinated persuasive strategy that Obama uses to transition into his call-to-action. He says, “Now, at a time when both parents are more likely to work longer hours outside the home, this is a lot easier said than done.
We try to compete with these media messages, but it’s nearly impossible to be there every moment our kids are watching television” (3). In the conclusion of this address, Senator Obama continues to utilize the common ground and vivid comparisons and contrasts but he kicks it up a notch by appealing to their sense of pride and nationalism. He quotes Newton Minow’s famous “Vast Wasteland” speech, saying, “It is not enough to cater to the nation’s whims- you must serve the nation’s needs” (4).
Clearly, the finger is being pointed at the media but the tone remains positive, as he continues, “We find ourselves immersed in a mass media culture that is at once more vast and more wasteful than ever before. And so once again, we find ourselves asking those in charge to serve the needs of a nation that has a higher calling than simply peddling indecency and materialism for profit”(4). Without playing the senseless blame game, Obama is encouraging those in the media to begin to stand up and take responsibility for the well-being of their children and all children who consume media regularly.
Again, because the audience is probably made up f a huge percentage of parents, a sense of urgency has been created and a solution is desired. Furthermore, Obama reminds them that they are part of that solution, which is empowering, making the audience eager to take action. Finally, Senator Barack Obama concludes the address, saying, “We don’t have to accept what we see today as inevitable. We can all work together to make media a place where big ideas and great debates are communicated. We owe this much to ourselves, and we certainly owe it to our children” (4).
Despite Obama’s position as a politician, his tone and demeanor make this speech more of a civic discourse, rather than a political one. Ultimately, his focus on the public good and by emphasizing their common ground as parents, the Senator is able to effectively persuade his audience to take action: neither for his own benefit, nor theirs, but for the children. Works Cited Kaiser Family Foundation. Remarks of U. S. Senator Barack Obama. Washington D. C. November 9, 2005. ;http://www. kff. org/entmedia/upload/entmedia110905oth2. pdf;
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