Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
The Most Wonderful Time of the (Election) Year: The Culture Schlub goes on the attack on attack ads.
In the novel Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace creates a world where network television as we know it has been completely usurped by a new system where consumers select and purchase individual tapes of each day’s entertainment (the modern accuracy of which, minus the internet, is pretty astounding). In the novel, this new way to watch TV was born out of a series of disturbing, nightmare-inducing commercials. According to Wallace, these spots were so horrifying that people could not get them out of their heads. Because of this, sales went up on the products advertised, which caused more such ads to be placed on screen, which caused people to stop watching television altogether, out of fear of seeing another one.
Personally, I always found this line of thought fascinating, and there have been several occasions where I wondered if fiction and reality were starting to collide. There are the new breed of sick and truly disgusting horror movies whose trailers alone seem like they should carry a higher MPAA rating. (I seem to remember an ad for The Hills Have Eyes (?) that featured hooks, screams, and the most fucked up looking little girl I can ever remember seeing on screen.) There is also the new line of Volkswagen commercials that feature cinema-verité style car crashes that make me want to sue the company before I ever consider buying one of their cars.
And, once every two years, we have the inevitable spate of political commercials.
I could be wrong about this, but I feel like a pattern has formed that remains remarkably consistent. As the candidates are selected and ballots become clear, there are stories upon stories of the two politicians contacting each other, wishing each other luck, and vowing to run clean campaigns. They might even start out that way, with ads that merely state the accomplishments of the person the ad is trying to get elected. However, once the first polls start coming out, everything changes. Either one candidate is far behind the other and begins to panic, or they seem to be tied, which causes both of them to panic. No matter what the cause, both campaigns soon devolve into mean-spirited and juvenile (though sophisticated) mud-slinging. Candidates will stoop as low as they possibly can to discredit or embarrass their opponents, and if and when their underhanded tactics are brought to the forefront, they will deny these accusations with the same vociferousness that they used to hurl the earlier ones. By the final week, these ads are so ubiquitous and awful that a lot of people, myself included, avoid television altogether just to get a respite from the negativity (and my thesis comes full circle!!!).
And for all the various and sundry accusations and smear campaigns that are used during this season…every single ad blends remarkably well into the other. I bet we could make one right now:
Music is slow and ominous. The lighting is dark, suggesting shadiness and subterfuge. An unflattering photograph of Candidate A (ripped from a candid shot, or a newspaper) appears on screen, slightly askew. We see the following text as our narrator (either a deep, gravelly voiced man or a somber voiced woman) says the following:
NARRATOR: CANDIDATE A SAYS THAT S/HE CARES ABOUT (INSERT ISSUE/CAUSE HERE). WELL LET’S LOOK AT THE FACTS.
Under more shadow and with several more unflattering photographs, a series of confusing statistics and old quotes taken out of context are now presented in a way that allows for maximum disgust, and minimum understanding.
NARRATOR: CANDIDATE A. WRONG ABOUT (ISSUE), BAD FOR (STATE/COUNTRY).
We now see one shot of Candidate B. S/He is in full light, smiling with his/her family. S/He looks honest, and happy, and good. The music is lighter.
CANDIDATE B: I’M CANDIDATE B, AND I APPROVE THIS MESSAGE.
In 2004, our nation was almost completely and equally divided along party and issue lines. Our current “president” “won” “re”-election to the collective horror of half of Americans and most of the rest of the world. Since that time, his administration in particular and his party in general have suffered countless setbacks in policy and public image. Now, in 2006, the president and his party are cursed (blessed?) with record-low approval ratings, and control of both houses of Congress are up for grabs. Is it any wonder that this season features more mudslinging than any other in recent memory?
Let’s take a look at only a few of the more recent national headlines:
- A professional NFL quarterback berated a candidate publicly for using his face in her re-election ads. The candidate? His own mother!
- An ad in Tennessee was pulled from the air , featuring a white woman “subtly” propositioning a black candidate for sex. Allegations that the ad was created to tap into the inherent bigotry and racism of Tennesseans were denied, and according to the rival headquarters, the ad was pulled only after “it ran its course.”
- A Republican political “pundit” blasted a Hollywood actor for appearing in ads supporting stem cell research, merely because such research could find cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s; a disease from which this actor suffers from. The pundit in question accused the actor of exaggerating his illness, and that some of his shaking in the ad was faked. Only after heated response to his comments did he amend his statement, then merely accusing the actor of “allowing his illness to be exploited.”
- Looking ahead all the way to 2004, the president and his administration attacked Senator John Kerry for his recent comments on Iraq, “You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq.” Bush declared this statement unpatriotic and insulting, adding “The members of the United States military are plenty smart and they are plenty brave and the senator from Massachusetts owes them an apology.” It should be pointed out that NEITHER of these two men are running for office in 2006.
Those are the NATIONAL stories, but as a resident of DC, I am still fortunate enough to get all the angles on several LOCAL ones:
- In the Maryland Senate Race of Michael Steele (R) versus Ben Cardin (D), Steele has created a string of ads where he talks about the failings of both parties, and how his “outsider” status will allow him to go in and shake things up. His attack ads mostly focus on how Cardin has been a politician for a long time, and so is not deserving of HIS self-proclaimed “outsider” status. On the flip side, Cardin’s ads attack Steele’s record as a Congressman. Hilariously, most attacks focus on the fact that Steele tends to agree with the President, and often feature footage of the President STATING STEELE’S NAME!
- Even more spectacular is the Virginia Senate race between incumbent George Allen (R), and Democrat Jim Webb (D). Allen is the real story here, and Webb’s attack ads, if anything, suffer from having just too much kindling for the fire. Allen, remember, is the Senator who mocked an opponent’s staffer at a fundraiser by calling him a bigoted (and, point in fact, racially incorrect) name, has admitted to hanging Confederate flags in his college dorm rooms and Congressional offices, tried to cover up his family’s Jewish heritage (HORROR!), and when it was revealed, attempted to deflect it by speaking up of his love of pork products. On the other side, his campaign was able to dig deeply into Webb’s tenure as the Secretary of the Navy, and find some potentially bad things that Webb said in the late 70s and early 80s (these statements are offered, surprisingly enough, with no context to back them up), and in regard to the Tailhook Scandal of 1991. (The end slogan for this ad is “Jim Webb. Perfect for ’06. 1806.”)
I am sure that everyone is as sick and tired of this seemingly constant stream of attacks as I am, and I am likewise sure that any ads that I have not had the good fortune to see are as unintentionally hilarious as these ones are. No matter what your political leaning or governmental activism, we can all wait anxiously for the elections to be over, where we can once again spend our programming breaks watching Hummer commercials, the way it should be.
That is, unless the ads have scared us off of television altogether.