Ad Report Card

Not-So-Amateur Night

A surprisingly slick spot wins MoveOn’s anti-Bush ad contest.

Click here to see the finalists in the “Bush in 30 Seconds” contest.

"Child's Play": The winning ad
“Child’s Play”: The winning ad

Last night, grass-roots group chose the winner of its “Bush in 30 Seconds”contest, which invited people to create ads that would convey “the truth about George Bush.” I am sorry to announce that the best ad won.

The champ was chosen by a panel of celebrity judges that included James Carville, Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, and Jack Black. The panel voted on 14 finalists that had been culled from about 1,500 entries. The winning ad will be aired on television several times during the week of Bush’s State of the Union address. Last night, as I watched a Webcast of the ceremony through a shaky browser window, Michael Moore handed out the big award to the winner—an ad guy from Denver, who gave a very brief, very bland acceptance speech. Then the evening closed as Moby launched into the worst cover of “Walk This Way” that you could possibly conceive of. (Honestly, he sounded like your 11-year-old brother doing karaoke on a cruise ship.)

Which ad did the celebrity panel end up choosing? A spot called “Child’s Pay,” in which we see small children toiling as janitors, factory workers, and garbage men—their tiny frames dwarfed by adult-sized mops, machines, and trash bags. There is no dialogue or text, until the explanatory tag line at the end: “Guess who’s going to pay off President Bush’s $1 trillion deficit?”

“Child’s Pay” has excellent production values—it’s by far the slickest of the 14 finalists. Several of the rival entries appear to be shot with a cell phone camera (and lit with a desk lamp). Meanwhile, “Child’s Pay” boasts a moody acoustic guitar track, high-quality lighting, and careful mise-en-scène that might make celebrity judge Michael Mann (director of Heat and Ali) proud, or at least not nauseous.

In sum, “Child’s Pay” is a solid choice by the judges. And unlike the other finalists—many of which come off as shrill lectures—this one might actually change some minds. It’s reasonable, moderate, and high-toned. Which is no doubt just what the judges were looking for, especially after a flap over two entries that equated Bush with Adolf Hitler. But what’s right with this ad is also precisely what is wrong with it.

Of all the ads, this is the one that most looks like it was dreamed up and executed by the Democratic National Committee. So why bother? Why not just leave that sort of thing to the DNC itself and strive for something new and different? MoveOn clearly conceived of this contest as a bold experiment in opening up the forum, turning the consumer/producer tables, and crashing the media dialogue. (The contest rules even state: “We’re NOT looking for the same old slick political ads from Washington media consultants.”) But in the end they went with the most polished, staid option. What’s more, this ad completely ignores the MoveOn crowd’s single biggest issue: the war in Iraq. Is this what all those grass-roots folks wanted to see when they donated money to air a spot that would speak for unheard voices? An ad about the growing deficit?

(I’ve also got a separate, more practical problem with the ad: message clarity. When this actually airs on television, I’m not sure how effective it will be with the audience. All those shots of children at work, with no voice-over or text, suggest this is an ad about child labor, perhaps making a point about international sweatshops or something. Only at the end do we get the punch line, and even then it leaves us a little puzzled. I mean, these kids won’t really be kids anymore when they go to work to pay off the deficit. They’ll be adults then. By this point the whole thing’s muddled, and the next ad comes on and it’s for fabric softener and it’s got a cute puppy in it, and now you’ve lost us completely.)

If judges were looking for a less mainstream, more rough-edged winner, I might have chosen a finalist called “In My Country.” In it, a South Asian guy complains that his country is being reshaped by religious extremists, that his government can keep a list of everyone he calls, and that his countrymen can be held in prison without a trial or a lawyer. The payoff, of course, is that his country is the United States. Yes, it’s a hackish gimmick, and you can see it coming a mile away. And yes, the production values are … indie. But there’s real passion in the guy’s performance. And civil liberties seems a more MoveOn-y, underrepresented cause than, say, deficit reduction.

But who am I to tell MoveOn what to do? After all, “Child’s Pay” wasn’t just the celebrity panel’s choice—it was the people’s choice, too. (Internet voters ranked it the best of the lot.) Perhaps the MoveOn folks, in a surprisingly savvy move, chose gentle persuasion over rallying the base. Perhaps they feared that a low-budget, preach-to-the-choir ad would make them look like fringe amateurs, instead of the power players they long to be. Perhaps they were blinded by “Child’s Pay“‘s high-gloss finish. Or perhaps, like Moby with his Steven Tyler impression, they’ve all just got bad judgment.