Lights, camera, action: Romney fights Hollywood's take on big business

The template of a greedy, heartless businessman who wants to buy votes has a long tradition in movies, books and television.

And with Mitt Romney’s business background a prominent part of his presidential campaign, any pop cultural reference combining business and politics is almost immediately seen as commentary on the presumptive GOP nominee.

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Take, for example, last Thursday when Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler) — the heroine of the hit NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation” — squared off for a fictitious city council debate with a rich, out-of-touch businessman who threatened to ship jobs overseas unless he got his way.

“I want to run this town like a business,” Bobby Newport (played by Paul Rudd), said to the constituents of the fictional Pawnee, Ind. “My opponent, Leslie Knope, has an anti-business agenda.”

When it was Knope’s turn, she shot back: “Corporations are not allowed to dictate what a city needs. The power belongs to the people.”

She then added: “Bobby Newport and his daddy would like you to think it belongs to them.”

It’s a prominent example of how businessmen are portrayed in the modern era, examples of which are also seen in films such as “Wall Street,” “Boiler Room,” and “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

And Romney is not only countering Hollywood’s portrayal of big business, he’s running against a president with pop cultural appeal.

Conservatives, then, are already bracing for a season of relentless attacks on the former Massachusetts governor for his wealth and business background. Their thinking? If Hollywood liberals already like mocking rich capitalists, how much more fun will they have when one is running for president — and against a president they support.

If the barrage of attacks is a fait accompli, the question for Romney, then, is how to overcome it. There are a couple avenues for him to choose. He could circumvent the jokes by joining in on them, he could play it straight and embrace his financial success, or he could simply ignore it.

MOCKING HIMSELF: The upside here is that everyone likes self-deprecation. It humanizes and personalizes.

Romney has already taken some steps to try to dismiss the unappealing stereotypes by mockingly indulging them, but the results haven’t always been great. Last year, he told unemployed factory workers that he, too, was unemployed. Romney clearly meant it to be a joke about himself, but instead, it seemed more like a joke about the factory workers and their plight.

That’s the primary risk Romney runs with making cracks about his wealth. If he jokes about owning multiple homes and a car elevator, it might strike a bad note with people who are struggling to even own one home or pay off a car.

There are other risks, too. By indulging — even mockingly — the stereotypes, Romney further risks cementing the persona of the rich, out-of-touch-guy with voters who are still largely being introduced to him.

EMBRACING IT: He’s moved somewhat uneasily toward this model over the course of this year. After President Obama implied in April that Romney was born with a “silver spoon in his mouth,” Romney hit back.

“I’m not going to apologize for my dad and his success in life,” he said on Fox News. And, in a February appearance on the network, he frankly defended his success after explaining why his wife had two Cadillacs: “If people think there’s something wrong with being successful in America, then they better vote for the other guy.”

The upside for this strategy is that it's frank and appeals to the American Dream. Despite the Occupy Wall Street movement, there are still plenty of voters who view it as something to aspire to.

When the National Review asked comedian and radio personality Adam Carolla about Romney’s taxes, Carolla answered: “I don’t know who is sending mosquito nets over trying to cure malaria in Africa, but last time I checked it was Bill Gates. Is Bill Gates evil? Are all rich guys evil or just guys with nice hair?”

Media consultant and the author of the Mr. Media Training Blog Brad Phillips thinks this is the route to go. “He should proudly own his wealth and needs an audience-focused message that convinces voters that his success can directly benefit them,” he said.

IGNORING IT: Romney would much rather talk about the trouble others are having getting rich than about his personal wealth. Romney knows that, paradoxically, his great success in life might mean his failure in November, and there’s always the temptation to sweep uncomfortable topics under the rug.

The upside is that voters might judge his wealth as superfluous to the debate over how to create jobs and handle the deficit. In that case, why would Romney embrace or mock his wealth? Better to let things lie.

The downside is the little maxim that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide, and if Romney seems to be dancing around his wealth, voters might think there’s fire to the smoke.

Further, it might be impossible to ignore it. On Tuesday, the Obama campaign released an ad that ends with an allusion to Romney’s wealth by slamming his “Swiss bank account” while allegedly shipping jobs overseas — showing it don’t plan to lay the issue to rest even if Romney wants to.