Political ads are boring. That is, at least the ones you see on television. This year, it’s easy to find funny, smart ads online that creatively praise and belittle the presidential candidates. The interest groups and 527 organizations that make the best commercials typically don’t have the money to put their spots on TV, though. So, unless you’re an insomniac who lives in a swing state, you probably haven’t seen this year’s best political spots.
One campaign you might have missed is MoveOn’s “Real People.” Directed by acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris in the style of his Apple “Switch” ads, the series includes anti-Bush and antiwar testimonials, like one from a former Marine who says the war in Iraq wasn’t worth his friends’ lives. While Morris’ ads are stirring, their straight, humorless take on George W. Bush is an exception. In some ads, left-leaning groups make the case against Bush by preparing spots that claim to support him. Billionaires for Bush helped pioneer this technique with ads like “Just Like Us,” in which a plutocrat refers to his “loved ones in Iraq” and points to a photo of an oil pump.
Among the countless Bush parodies and satires, perhaps the funniest is “White House West.” The three-minute minimovie, paid for by the George Soros-backed Americans Coming Together, features Will Ferrell in a reprise of his Bush impression from Saturday Night Live. Ferrell plays Bush as a macho rancher who’s afraid of horses, discourages people from voting, and admits, “Ever since I took office, well, things have been really, really bad.” TrueMajorityACTION PAC, the group backed by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s fame, produced the Apprentice takeoff “Trump Fires Bush.” The ad is far too sarcastic, simplistic, and juvenile for television—it just splices footage of a confused-looking Bush into clips from the reality show—which pretty much ensures that it’ll be seen by millions on the Web. (This commercial is available online at the Living Room Candidate, a site run by the American Museum of the Moving Image that catalogs commercials from every presidential campaign since 1952.) Of course, not all of these ostensibly funny ads bring the laughs. Watch Fair and Balanced PAC’s bizarre animation “The Lord of the Right Wing,” which includes “Gollum W. Bush” mumbling about bling bling, and you’ll start longing for good old-fashioned lame TV ads.
Republican groups haven’t been quite as active in the online ad world, but there are a couple of standout pro-GOP spots. Citizens United’s “Man of the People,” a spoof of MasterCard’s “priceless” campaign, catalogs the cost of John Kerry’s haircuts, designer shirts, and yacht as hoity-toity violins play in the background. The Republican National Committee itself prepared one of the most unusual spots of the campaign season, “What Does John Kerry Have In Common With The Cicadas?” At the end of the spot, which compares Kerry’s attempts to shed his Senate record to cicadas shedding their shells, a bug head morphs into the Democratic nominee’s face.
The RNC’s Kerry-cicada ad is certainly the most outlandish official commercial that’s been released so far this year. While the online-only spots developed by the Bush campaign aren’t as creative as those done by interest groups, they do have a certain self-conscious Webbiness about them. After releasing a television spot, “Weapons,” that attacked Kerry’s votes on military spending bills, the campaign unveiled an interactive Web version that included more details about specific military hardware Kerry had supposedly blocked. The Bush campaign and the RNC have since released several similar ads, including “Flip Flop Olympics,” “John Kerry, International Man of Mystery,” and “Kerryopoly.”
While Bush and Co. have created colorful games portraying Kerry as a hapless flip-flopper, the Kerry campaign has yet to unfurl many bells and whistles. Online-only Kerry ads like “Mistakes Were Made” and “Turned the Corner” are distinct mostly due to their combative tone—they’re much more aggressively anti-Bush than the campaign’s warmly patriotic TV spots. Then there’s the animated “Bush’s Middle Class Squeeze,” which shows a family getting soaked by rains brought on by the president’s family-unfriendly policies. While the cartoon family is easily convinced that John Kerry is the right man for the job, it’s hard to see how this spot—or any of these pro-Bush or pro-Kerry ads—will sway an undecided voter. Online ads may be the funniest, coolest things in the world, but they don’t reach the massive, diverse audience of a television commercial. In the end, the only ones who watch are those who want to click.