2010 has been the liveliest year yet for online campaign ads, as one low-budget clip after another draws enormous audiences through the sheer power of being different. And by different, we mean weird. Some of the ads that took off online originally aired on television, but others took the opposite route: They were posted to the Web first, sometimes at a length far too long for a TV spot, and then appeared free of charge on political talk shows after they picked up enough buzz to qualify as news. Some never left the Internet at all, achieving the sort of fame reserved for dramatic chipmunks and Star Wars kids.
There are two distinct but related phenomena going on here. One is advertising that was carefully designed to go viral: deliberately off-kilter commercials like Carly Fiorina’s “demon sheep” ad in the California senate race. And then there are the outsider artists whose ads simply reflect the fact that it’s easier than ever for anyone to create and post a video for the whole world to see, whether or not he knows what a conventional campaign ad looks like. The most extreme example is Basil Marceaux, a perennial crank candidate in Tennessee, whose bizarre homemade commercials got attention from the likes of Jimmy Kimmel Live and The Colbert Report.
The new wave of online ads has provoked a wide spectrum of responses, from praise to derision to fear. The most overwrought reaction came from MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, after the Alabama congressional candidate Rick Barber released an ad that invoked the American Revolution. It was standard-issue populist iconography, but Olbermann attacked it as “a call to treason” and declared that the candidate should be jailed.
Here are some of the most memorable clips of the season thus far:
Debut Date: January
The Candidate: Dwight McKenna, Democrat
The Office: coroner, Orleans Parish
The Setup: The incumbent has abused his office to advance a lucrative trade in human organs. To illustrate the scandal, here is a 30-second Frankenstein movie.
The Defining Moment: “‘Igor!’ ‘Yes, Doctor?’ ‘I need a heart, a spleen, and a liver for tonight’s sale!’”
Debut Date: February
The Candidate: Carly Fiorina, Republican
The Office: U.S. senator, California
The Setup: Tom Campbell claims to be a fiscal conservative. Actually, he’s a big-spending, debt-swelling, tax-hiking wolf in sheep’s clothing.