Republican presidential candidates sparred over experience, took jabs at their Democratic opponents and even shared a few laughs during CNBC's debate. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

“That’s awkward.”

This surely was the response of many viewers watching the chaotic, ill-moderated GOP debate Wednesday night. But maybe its weirdness became the debate’s selling point.

Advertising experts say that awkwardness is a peculiar attribute of the national mood these days. Many television commercials end with a deliberately awkward moment, where the characters make non sequiturs, or say things that make others uncomfortable, or otherwise look like miscast nerds.

The point is: Awkward sells. It takes the edge off. It’s fashionably geeky. It’s anti-elitist. It’s memorable in its otherness. And it’s inclusive: For, really, what’s more down-to-earth and American than feeling awkward?

It wasn’t the candidates’ fault that the debate seemed so uncomfortable. That was more CNBC’s problem. And it didn’t seem to hurt the politicians in terms of likability. The public, alas, probably perceived the bad guys as the journalists asking hard questions.

During the third GOP debate, candidates got feisty with the CNBC moderators. They took aim at the questions asked, at the "mainstream media" and at the moderators interrupting their answers. (Victoria M. Walker/The Washington Post)

Amid all the interruptions and snapbacks, the politicians seemed normal, in an advertising sort of way: Chris Christie does a superb male version of Josephine the Plumber, especially when he looks right at you and tells you how great he is. Donald Trump was born to sell anything. Carly Fiorina could replace Flo, the Progressive insurance woman — the smartest person in the room, but slightly annoying, too. How could you not feel sorry for them, all together onstage?

What do the advertising gurus tell us? “Just about everyone in the culture today is feeling out of sorts, clueless, uncomfortable. So a play on awkwardness has more universality,” says Randall Rothenberg, a former New York Times advertising columnist who’s president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

“Wear your awkwardness on your sleeve” is the rule for marketers, especially those hoping to sell to the millennial generation, says Simon Dumenco, a media columnist for Advertising Age. He notes that the hot network shows these days celebrate a kind of nerdy uneasiness, as in “The Big Bang Theory” or “New Girl.”

In terms of the cultural zeitgeist, awkwardness has replaced irony as the default sensibility, argued Elif Batuman in a New Yorker essay titled “The Awkward Age” in September 2014. “As the Eskimos were said to have seven words for snow, today’s Americans have a near-infinite vocabulary for gradations of awkwardness — there are some six hundred entries in Urban Dictionary . . . awkwardness is existential, universal.”

My colleague, Post columnist Alexandra Petri, wrote the book, literally, in “A Field Guide to Awkward Silences.” Her rubric: “Some people are born awkward. Some achieve awkwardness. Some have awkwardness thrust upon them.”

Advertisers pick up this social bedrock of discomfort and mistrust. A recent post from the Futures Company, an affiliate of the advertising and marketing giant WPP explains: “ ‘Awkward’ is a funny thing. While it can be painful to watch, sometimes it has a way of reconnecting us with the real world — not just one of cliches, stereotypes, and formalities. Awkwardness is intriguing because not all of us are socially appropriate, which can remind us of what being human really means.”

Lindsey Kirchoff, writing for the blog “How to Market to Me,” takes it a step further: “If you’re trying to tap into the millennial market, awkward is the new cool.” What’s slick is untrustworthy. That’s one reason that, according to an online marketing newsletter called clickz.com, “84 percent of millennials don’t trust traditional advertising.” Convincing messages connect with consumers’ anxiety and mistrust.

Which brings us back to those GOP candidates onstage in Boulder, Colo. The obvious, overwhelming fact about this campaign is that the candidates who have done best are the ones who don’t look or talk like politicians. Trump and Ben Carson are topping the charts because they lack conventional campaign résumés, not in spite of that. The anti-candidates are the ones a dispirited electorate seems to trust.

The same logic explains the poor showing of the conventional candidates, especially Jeb Bush. He appears so perfect for the part — a creature of GOP central casting — that modern political consumers seem to tune him out. Sometimes he looks like a guy pitching wealth-management services during an ad break at the Masters golf tournament. Maybe Bush’s best hope is that he, too, has an inner awkwardness that surfaces in unscripted encounters.

Does Trump sometimes seem a bit awkward, as he barks his sound bites, oblivious to what he’s supposed to say? Is Carson a bit eccentric, with his gentle speech and doe-eyed look? That’s the point.

I hope this “awkward” moment will pass before the primaries start. But it does connect with something powerful in the national mood.

Read more from David Ignatius’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.