The Year of YouTube Advertising

The wildest crop yet of online campaign commercials


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.

The Defining Moment: Campbell as a creepy sheep with demonic red eyes, quietly devouring the flock.

Debut Date: May

The Candidate: Dale Peterson, Republican

The Office: agriculture commissioner, Alabama

The Setup: A plain-talkin' angry man with a shotgun is ready to clear the thugs and criminals out of the agriculture department. Also: Illegal aliens are invading the country, my opponent is a crook, and his supporters are stealing my yard signs.

The Defining Moment: "I've been a farmer! A businessman! A cop! A marine during Vietnam! So listen up!"

Debut Date: May

The Candidate: any Republican but Bradley Byrne

The Office: governor, Alabama

The Setup: Flip-flopping, tax-hiking, evolution-believing Bradley Byrne is really a liberal.

The Defining Moment: "He even recently said the Bible is only partially true."

Debut Date: June

The Candidate: Rick Barber, Republican

The Office: U.S. representative, 2nd District of Alabama

The Setup: The anti-tax Barber obtains the Founding Fathers' permission for a second American Revolution.

The Defining Moment: George Washington gravely declares, "Gather your armies."

Debut Date: June

The Candidate: Pamela Gorman, Republican

The Office: U.S. representative, 3rd District of Arizona

The Setup: The candidate fires several different models of firearm.

The Defining Moment: "Rated 100 percent by the NRA, conservative Pamela Gorman is always right on target."

Debut Date: July

The Candidate: Peter Schiff, Republican

The Office: U.S. senator, Connecticut

The Setup: Evidence that Schiff's opponent, Linda McMahon, is a liberal, repeatedly punctuated by footage of her kicking a man in the crotch.

The Defining Moment: "McMahon supporting Obama's bailouts. Isn't that just a kick in the…"

Debut Date: July

The Candidate: Vijay Kumar, Republican

The Office: U.S. representative, 5th District of Tennessee

The Setup: By helping Kumar defeat his opponents, you will help defeat Universal Jihad.

The Defining Moment: "UNIVERSAL JIHAD IS HERE"

Debut Date: July

The Candidate: Travis Irvine, Libertarian

The Office: U.S. representative, 12th District of Ohio

The Setup: Irvine brings in an expert on government waste: infomercial icon Matthew Lesko.


Debut Date: August

The Candidate: Basil Marceaux, Republican

The Office: governor, Tennessee

The Setup: Finally, a candidate who promises to move the capitol from Nashville to Chattanooga, so he can clear away all the backroom politics. ("It will probably take a year or two.") He will also cease all traffic stops, "remove the gold-fringed flag from our society," and plant "vegitation" (sic) so we can turn it into ethanol and "cash it in for gas or money."

The Defining Moment: "Hello, citizens. This is BasilMarceaux.com."

Debut Date: September

The Candidate: John Dennis, Republican

The Office: U.S. representative, 8th District of California

The Setup: It's a Tea Party–themed Wizard of Oz, featuring a "Wall-Street wizard" and wicked witch Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whom Dennis melts with a bucket of water labeled "freedom."

The Defining Moment: There's an epic tornado about 15 seconds in.