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November 1, 2006

Pass the Popcorn: Political Ads are Great Entertainment


I have a confession to make that I expect most of you will not share. I love political advertisements on television. While most people I know, this time of year, are so sick of the constant smears and counter-smears that they seem ready to turn off the TV altogether until after election day, I absolutely can’t get enough of it. And the more outrageous and over-the-top, the better.


I realize, of course, that this is an uncommon position. Most people I know believe that the prevalence of negative television advertising will bring about the downfall of the republic, the end of Western Civilization or worse. I would advise those who feel this way to get a sense of humor, and realize that, the vast majority of the time, absolutely no harm is done by attack ads. And rather than restrain such ads, the McCain/Feingold campaign finance reform, and the third-party 527 loophole it created, has only made the mudslinging more wild.


This year’s campaign has a new twist. Political junkies nationwide, for the entire election season, have been viewing ads from all over the country on YouTube and other online video sites, laughing communally about the best and worst.


The entire game operates in a free market. Especially unfair negative ads, of course, are subject both to responses from the targets and oversight by the media and blogs. For example, an especially unfair Rick Santorum ad against Bob Casey in Pennsylvania was methodically picked apart by a local television station, which discovered that virtually every assertion in it was false. And on YouTube, a burgeoning genre has emerged of amateur and parody campaign ads, which are often even more effective than those produced by expensive, professional consultants.


Sure, I’m as sick as anyone of seeing the exact same ad again and again and again. And there are certain ads – especially the RNC’s unquestionably racist Harold Ford Jr./Playboy bunny bit – that are absolutely beneath contempt. (The RNC, in fact, was shamed into pulling that ad.) But the vast majority of televised political advertising is not only completely harmless, but often unintentionally hilarious.


Take Vernon Robinson, a perennial Republican congressional candidate in North Carolina who has stated on more than one occasion that he aspires to be “the black Jesse Helms.” Robinson’s ads against his opponent, Brad Miller, are almost a self-parody of far-right Republican talking points.


In one ad, he accuses Miller of “paying for sex” with taxpayer money (because he once voted to fund a study of the mating habits of elderly men). In another, he says that “if Miller had his way, America would be nothing but one big fiesta for illegal aliens and homosexuals,” and that Miller “voted for illegal aliens to spit on and trample” the American flag. (If there really had been an Illegal Alien Flag-Spitting Act, I would guess Miller probably would not have supported it.)


Then there’s Nebraska’s way-behind-in-the-polls Senate candidate Pete Ricketts, who produced a cartoon ad depicting his opponent, Ben Nelson, shooting turkeys on his farm, while singing “Old MacDonald.” You can try getting outraged at ads like these, but it’s hard not to laugh first. (New York mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer ran a similar ad last year depicting Mayor Michael Bloomberg as riding a horse with George W. Bush - then set off a brouhaha when it appeared that the cartoon mayor was performing a sex act on the president.)


But what’s the most outrageous one of all? In a sequel to 2004’s “Wolves” ad, the RNC has given us “These Are The Stakes,” which features only a ticking clock, and footage of various al-Qaeda leaders. The only thing funnier than the ad’s implication - (only the Republicans can find Bin Laden?) - is a YouTube parody: “These Are the Stingrays.”


Every now and then, of course, a supremely effective positive ad will emerge that is so powerful that it actually helps a candidate win their election. In the state of Minnesota alone, this has happened twice in recent years: Paul Wellstone, in 1990, was elected from out of nowhere to the U.S. Senate largely on the strength of an ingenious commercial that showed him running around the state – quickly, he said, because his time and funds were limited. Eight years later, Jesse Ventura used an ad featuring himself as an action figure fighting “Evil Special Interest Man” to catapult himself to that state’s governorship.


People can get on their high horse all they want and depict political ads as cruel and wrong. But I, for one, could watch these ads all day.

© 2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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