When political ads go very wrong: an evening of laughs

It's no secret that political advertising can get really annoying. Enter this Wednesday's "Worst Political Advertising in America Awards," an event lampooning the most ridiculous, confusing, inflammatory, and distorted commercials blaring from our TVs this year.

The event will serve as a fundraiser for Growth and Justice, a nonprofit economic think–tank that strives to make Minnesota more fair, prosperous, and environmentally sustainable. Dane Smith, the president of the organization, who spent 30 years as a reporter on politics for the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, has some thoughts on the need to improve TV ads.

City Pages: What constitutes a bad political ad? Are there any common mistakes?

Dane Smith: A bad ad, most of all, is one that is simplistic and distorted in its negativity. Take the attack ad, for example. It's confined to 30 seconds, and if you're going to attack someone—a personal attack—the attacker won't bother to balance information. It's gotten to be an art form, one that is pretty thoroughly despised by people concerned for the political system in this country. I once heard it said that if businesses attacked each other the way political candidates do, nobody in this country would buy anything. With harshly negative attack ads, the real purpose is not to get someone to vote for your guy, but to not vote. These ads are intended to get people to stay home. That is a very bad thing.

CP: What was your criteria when selecting commercials for the event?

DS: We put an intern to work on this, and he threw together of close to a 100 of commercials within a few days. We've quite a collection of distorted, malicious, unfair ads. Some of them are plain hilarious. To be brutally honest, we're not doing this as a serious intellectual exercise. There's no pretense here of scholarly critique. But there is a larger point. Growth and Justice is a non–profit group. We think left and right, Democrat or Republican, should work together to create both a strong economy and a shared prosperity that involves everyone. Drawing attention and lampooning this lowest form of political discourse helps up make the point that we need to elevate the discourse.

CP: Do any presenters make the list of ads being lampooned?

DS: No, most of the worst are not even from Minnesota. Most were drawn from races in California, Wisconsin, North Carolina, national, and the current Presidential race.

CP: The press release I received about the event states that "political ads are viewed as the lowest form of political discourse." Why is that? Can they ever be thought–provoking or insightful? Or are they doomed forever?

DS: I think the format itself precludes any real meaningful discourse; the 30 seconds prevents it. There are ways to communicate; we're breaking through with new media that can provide voters with information on candidates. There's more info available out there than ever before. Now it's a matter of whether or not people will look for it. I am hopeful that TV ads will become obsolete as time goes on. That may be wishful thinking. But I do think the 30–second ad is really designed for the minimally connected voter, the one most prone to the brutally brief and simple message.

CP: How about the worst political ad ever? What made it so awful?

DS: There are so many bad ones. It's impossible to say one's the worst ever. So many are unfair and simplistic. In general, the attack ads that feature the target being some sort of shadow, or they use a bad picture, with creepy voiceovers, those are pretty bad. "Could Congressmen Smith be guilty of bestiality?" The way they distort is really breathtaking.

CP: How about the anecdote? What are some of the best ads out there?

DS: One of my personal favorites is the action figures that Jesse Ventura used in 1998. He had a Ventura adventure doll fighting and beating up on "Special Interest Man." It had two really cute little boys. Ads that use children; they're unfair because they are often very effective. Back in 1990, Wellstone used an ad where children were writing out checks for a zillion dollars to Wellstone's opponent. The point was that if kids could write checks we would get policies that would improve their conditions.

CP: Do you think ads have gotten worse over time? Are people more capable of seeing through a PR facade now than in the past?

DS: I don't know, I tend to see it as the more things change the more they stay the same. You know the Hillary ads with the phone ringing in the middle of the night? We've uncovered one very much like it from 24 years ago. It was from Walter Mondale in the presidential race in '84. Another example: We have an ad that is completely out of bounds [romantically] linking Bush and Cheney, it's called "Sweetheart Deal." It's a kind of attack that features "guilt by association." That exact same ad ran in 1952 in the race between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, with Eisenhower and Robert Taft being "guilty by association." That year was the first year that TV political ads ran during an election. We tend to think that the present is the worst, the best—whatever. But really, things don't change that much. Political attacks—scurrilous ones—have been part of politics since the invention of democracy. Politics is a rough sport.

Tomorrow night's "Worst Political Advertising in America Awards" will feature keynote remarks by former CNN journalist Aaron Brown. Local politicians, including R.T. Rybak and Sen. Mee Moua, will present clips, with video presentations featuring Senators Amy Klobuchar and Norm Coleman, and political hopeful Al Franken. $25; $125 for banquet reception attendees. 8 p.m.; 6:30 p.m. banquet. For tickets visit or call 651.917.6037. The event takes places at Pantages Theatre (710 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612.339.7007).