10. Attack of the 50-Foot Pelosi
Ridicule as a political tool is not new. Throughout American history candidates have been caricatured and lampooned. But with today's digital tools it's easier to turn flesh-and-blood politicians into cartoon characters. Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, long a target of conservatives, represents a “safe” district in California, where no amount of negative advertising would stop her reelection. However, she took on a featured role in negative commercials in several districts around the country in 2010, including this one that aired in western Pennsylvania in 2010 in support of Republican candidate Tim Burns. Burns lost out in the special election to represent Pennsylvania District 12.
9. The ‘Demon Blimp’
Like Nancy Pelosi, Democratic California Sen. Barbara Boxer is another favorite target of conservatives. Here’s a 7-minute video released by Boxer’s opponent, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, in the 2010 U.S. Senate race. Produced by conservative filmmaker David Zucker, the ad portrays Boxer as a gigantic blimp menacing the countryside. Boxer won re-election.
8. Hillary Clinton in 1984
During the bruising Democratic nomination battle in 2008 between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, this Internet video turned Hillary into an Orwellian Big Brother, in a mashup of the famous Apple computer commercial that aired during Super Bowl XVIII in 1984. As with the character in the original Apple commercial, Clinton's voice is metallic, her manner authoritarian. The ad touched a nerve because it reminded voters of Hillary's early years as first lady when she was fiercely criticized for being "co-president" because of her direct involvement in policy making. Clinton’s supporters complained bitterly that the ad was insidious. Obama campaign officials denied creating the ad, and the creator’s identity remains a mystery.
7. Gather Your Armies
Alabama congressional candidate Rick Barber, a Tea Party favorite, fired up his supporters during the 2010 campaign with this fiery ad. Seated in a tavern, Barber is talking, his audience hidden from view. As Barber’s rhetoric heats up — Bloated federal spending! Crushing taxes! Rollback of civil liberties! — his listeners come into view, famous colonial revolutionaries Sam Adams, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. When Barker ends his tirade against Big Brother, the camera zooms in on the character dressed as Washington. "Gather your armies!" he commands. Many voters, who remembered the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, were not amused. Barber was trounced in the GOP runoff election.
6. Michael J. Fox Stem Cell Ad
In October 2006, Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri was locked in a tight race with conservative Republican incumbent Sen. Jim Talent. Stem cell research was a hot-button issue at the time. In the campaign's final weeks, Hollywood celebrity Michael J. Fox came to McCaskill's rescue with a poignant personal ad endorsing McCaskill and slamming Talent. Fox, shaking uncontrollably from Parkinson's Disease, prayed that stem cell research might one day cure him. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh generated as much controversy as the ad when he claimed Fox was "either off his medication or acting." McCaskill won the election.
5. Madeleine Albright as Stooge
During the 2006 election campaign, filmmaker David Zucker created a short video slamming the Democratic Party for its soft treatment of America's enemies. In the video spoof, President Bill Clinton's Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, is portrayed as an overweight stooge with flaming red hair. Her not-quite look-alike is seen changing a flat tire on Yasser Arafat's limo (splitting the seam of her skirt wide open on her ample derriere). In the video, Madame Secretary performs other stupid tasks for the world's dictatorial deadbeats. The video is slapstick, but the message is clear: "The security of the United States is not a game. Can we afford a party that treats it like one?” The video was deemed so over the top that Republican strategists refused to use it in their campaigns, and the ad was even banned on YouTube for a time.
4. Swiftboat Veterans
When Democratic Sen. John Kerry ran for president in 2004, he ran directly into what some observers labeled libelous campaign ads. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War vet, had spoken out against the war as a young soldier. Outraged, a group calling itself "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" accused candidate Kerry of falsifying his war record and lying about his service in Vietnam. In one stinging commercial, the wife of a tortured vet says of Kerry, "He gave aid and comfort to the enemy," using language traditionally reserved for traitors. The accusations against Kerry were eventually proven false, but not before they had wounded him severely in the polls.
3. Willie Horton
Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1988, entered the campaign already handicapped, the ultra-liberal governor of Massachusetts, the state conservatives love to hate. The Bush campaign (Bush the Elder) used Willie Horton's face to cement Dukakis' reputation as being soft on crime. Horton was a convicted murderer who took advantage of Massachusetts' convict furlough program. While on furlough, he committed multiple felonies, including kidnapping and rape. The Republican ad featured a black-and-white, menacing mug shot of Horton, as the voice-over notes, "Michael Dukakis, he allowed murderers to have weekend passes." The ad raised the specter of black crime, but the Bush campaign denied it was racist.
2. Hands Ad
North Carolina's longtime Republican Sen. Jesse Helms was proud of the moniker, "Senator No." Helms voted no on civil rights, gay rights, foreign aid — even food stamps. Helms was also a fierce opponent of affirmative action. In his 1990 re-election campaign against Harvey Gantt, the African-American mayor of Charlotte, Helms pulled no punches. When polls showed him slipping behind Gantt, Helms' campaign ginned up white voters with a commercial showing a pair of white hands angrily tearing up a rejection letter. The voice-over explains, "You needed that job, but they had to give it to a minority" ("they" being liberals usurping the white man's rights). The ad continued, "Harvey Gantt supports Ted Kennedy's racial quota law which makes the color of your skin more important than your qualifications."
When asked whether he’d tried to make race an issue in the campaign, Helms responded, "Absolutely not. What am I supposed to do? Ignore everything that involves a black man?” Helms won re-election.
1. The Daisy Girl
This commercial from the 1964 ideological battle between President Lyndon Johnson and bedrock conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater set the standard for political attack ads. In a bucolic setting, with singing birds and flowers, a little girl picks daisies. As she counts off the petals, another countdown begins and the camera zooms in on the girl's eye. When the rough male voice reaches "zero," there's a cataclysmic explosion and a mushroom cloud rises in the distance. LBJ's voice warns, "We must either love each other or we must die." LBJ — not exactly a lovey-dovey type — slaughtered Goldwater in the election. The ad ran only once, on Sept. 7, 1964, before being pulled, but pundits will long debate how many votes it cost Goldwater by scaring away voters who believed he would plunge civilization into World War III. As for the little girl in the commercial, her identity remained anonymous for more than 40 years before she was identified as Monique Corzilius.
One More: Crossing the Line
Although this is certainly not on the scale of the aforementioned presidential and congressional commercials, here’s an ad that generated great controversy in Mississippi in May 2011. Mark Sandridge, candidate for sheriff of Madison County, Mississippi, ran an ad featuring only a car straddling the dotted line on a highway. The voice-over explains that the line separates "one of the most violent cities in the nation" from "our side, one of the most desirable communities in America to raise a family." Sounds of a riot come from the "other" town (in reality, Jackson, Mississippi, which is approximately 70 percent black). The camera traces down the line and runs smack dab into the lone figure of Sandridge, straddling the road. To many voters, the ad itself crossed the line. The ad was originally supposed to run for three months before movies at the Malco Grandview Theater, but was pulled after a few days after residents complained.