The 10 Dumbest, Most Offensive Political Ads in Recent Memory
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Rick Perry’s recent ad decrying the end of legal discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military took the Internet by storm, holding the record for the most-disliked video in the history of YouTube. It’s not hard to see why. The ad is a bit like George Wallace spewing racial epithets in 1975. Even 10 years ago Perry could have gotten away with it...maybe. In 2011, it’s hard to imagine the ad will sway anyone but hardened bigots.
Using bigotry to win votes is nothing new. The most common targets in 2011 are gays and lesbians, Muslims, Arabs and Latinos. Vilifying black people is also an old standby. Not a single election cycle goes by without some attempt to use fear of the “other” to win votes. Here’s a roundup of political ads from recent history that don’t even attempt to conceal their racism, sexism and homophobia.
1. "I’m Confused"
This ad features kids "expressing" confusion over same-sex marriage. The subtext isn’t too subtle: Gay people are coming for your children. While the undertones of sexual predation are certainly there (how could they not be?), the more overt message is perhaps even more troubling: Marriage equality laws will have your children questioning bigotry at an early age. And that’s a bad thing? The National Organization for Marriage (a decidedly Orwellian name, since it apparently opposes marriage) funded this gem to fight a marriage equality bill in New Hampshire -- a bill supported by 55 percent of New Hampshire voters. It’s worth noting that the National Organization for Marriage is headquartered in New Jersey, not New Hampsire.
The New Hampshire state legislature passed the bill, making New Hampshire the fifth state to recognize same-sex marriage. Legal and legislative challenges continue to this day.
2. “Welcome Prize”
This one combines xenophobia and racism into a neat little package. In the ad, immigrants stream across the border where thanks to bleeding-heart, big-government liberals, they apparently get limousines and other fabulous prizes. We have this one courtesy of David Vitter, who was running for Senate in Louisiana, a state not known for the high number of undocumented immigrants crossing the border. It’s not really clear where Vitter thinks the fence should be erected in Louisiana, nor for that matter why the “illegals” crossing the border are dressed more like they’re from East LA than Mexico City. What is clear, however, is that Vitter was pandering for the bigot vote that year, using the old “welfare queens” chestnut to do so.
This ad ran during Vitter’s re-election campaign after he had been identified as a john in a prostitution case. Louisiana sent him back to the Senate anyway.
3. “Harold Ford Jr. Not For Tennessee”
Harold Ford, Jr. was a rising star in the Democratic Party. The 2006 midterms were bitter all around, but Ford had a particularly tough fight for a Senate seat in Tennessee. The racial undertones of “tax and spend” have been explored thoroughly elsewhere. More troubling is the blonde-haired white woman urging Ford -- who was unmarried at the time -- to “call me” as a follow up to meeting him at “the Playboy party,” along with charges that he took money from “porn producers.” The NAACP denounced the ad, as did former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, who called the ad “a very serious appeal to racist sentiment.” The icing on the cake is the kicker: “He’s just not right,” a sort of 21st century coded version of “You’re not from around here.”
Results: Republican opponent Bob Corker was able to squeak out a close victory. A concurrently run radio ad featured drums when talking about Harold Ford, while patriotic music played behind descriptions of Corker.
4. “The Gathering Storm”
A series of people speak in hushed tones of the gathering storm... the assault on our rights... the desire for consenting adults to enter into loving relationships with one another. Yes, the specter of gay marriage will chill you to the very bone. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this ad is that no one really gives any specifics about how gay marriage will affect them. Mostly, they’re decrying their children being brought up in a pluralistic society. This is another one from the National Organization For Marriage, which uses the phrase “rainbow coalition” without the slightest hint of irony. The closing call to action also stands out as a touch weird -- precisely what secular creed is opposed to gay marriage?
Results: This ad was not mounted around any specific campaign, appearing after Prop 8 in California. While the tide seems to be in favor of equal marriage rights, there are clear battles ahead.
5. “Chinese Professor”
The Tea Party-allied Citizens Against Government Waste ran this ad for the 2010 election cycle. In the ad, the eponymous Chinese professor lectures on the demise of the United States. What is the reason for the demise? President Obama’s healthcare plan and the second stimulus package. No mention of the runaway military and intelligence spending under Bush 43. The ad resembles something out of an old Flash Gordon serial, featuring the Asiatic hordes cackling at the misery of their Western slaves. Shot entirely in Chinese, the ad is visually striking, with notes of Ridley Scott’s “1984” ad.
Results: Truly a piece of high propaganda, this is perhaps the ad future political spinmeisters will look to when attempting to craft a campaign based around racial anxieties tempered just below the surface.
6. “Give Us Your Cash, B*tch”
This ad from Right Turn USA is so outrageous it’s almost hard to believe it was made. It features a stripper dancing around while two African-American men pose with assault rifles. The black men are racist caricatures spewing sexist epithets. The stripper is white, of course. The ad was called “the most racist, sexist ad ever” by more than one source. It’s hard to think of fewer ads that more nakedly play upon racist stereotypes and the racial anxieties of white people. Thrown in for good measure are communist images such as the Cuban flag and pictures of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The ad brings a 21st-century sensibility to those favorite bogeymen of the American far right: Civil rights, women’s rights and communism.
Results: Janice Hahn won the election by a 55-to-45 margin. Right Turn USA sponsored the site “Hahn’s Homeboyz” (spelled with a “Z,” natch) as a means to continue to raise money and promote awareness of its smear tactics. Further, the group and its ad seem to be acting as a bit of a model for an emerging crop of young, web-savvy GOP videographers.
7. “The Wave”
This ad is perhaps one of the sanest things to emerge from Sharron Angle’s bizarre 2010 campaign. The ad features healthy, happy white adults counterpoised to racist caricatures of Latinos. Indeed, the only people of color featured in the ad who aren’t hardened gangbangers are President Obama and Felipe Calderon, the president of Mexico. The message is clear: America is a country for white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and we must resist a crushing tsunami of “illegal immigrants” coming across the border to commit crimes, steal benefits and force our children into Catholicism. Or something.
Results: Sharron Angle actually came relatively close to winning the election. Fortunately for the people of Nevada, there aren’t any trophies for second place in politics. Angle went back to private life, where she continued to make bizarre public statements and mull over a future run for office.
8. “No Mosque At Ground Zero”
The artificially created controversy over an Islamic cultural center planned near the former site of the World Trade Centers generated a bevvy of bizarre ads Perhaps most bizarre is how many of them came from places like North Carolina’s Second Congressional District, a place with no clear connection to New York City or its zoning laws. Renee Ellmers made political hay out of the event, though she didn’t really get the facts straight. The “victory mosque” pictured at the former Constantinople is the world-famous Hagia Sophia, a former Eastern Orthodox cathedral repurposed as a mosque. Catholic Crusaders were the first to repurpose it, though it did later revert to Orthodox hands. Still, few things are hotter in right-wing circles than Islamophobia and facts rarely ever get in the way.
Results: Ellmers narrowly defeated Democratic candidate Bob Ethridge.
9. “This Is Alabama, We Speak English”
Tim James speaks to Alabama over somber piano music about the number-one threat to freedom in the state -- multilingual driver’s tests. (Pretty bizarre, since every year likely zero Alabamans are killed on the roads because the driver of a car doesn’t speak English.) Tim James is going to put an end to this menace by getting speakers of Foreignese off the road. It’s the businessman in him. Because the state’s budget crisis is likely the sole result of the marginal cost of printing up additional documents in other languages. And, y’know, it makes sense... in a totally insane sort of way devoid of any logic whatsoever.
Results: James finished a dismal third in the GOP gubernatorial primary. It says something about your campaign when your ads are too bizarre to win a hearing among Republicans in a state where people who can’t prove that they’re legally in the country are having their water shut off. No word on any future political plans for Mr. James.
10. “Willie Horton”
This is pretty much the godfather of racist political ads. The ad tells the tale of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who killed again on a weekend furlough program. Without specifically mentioning Horton by name, Al Gore introduced the furlough program into public discourse at a Democratic Party candidates’ forum. Lee Atwater later found it to be highly effective in focus groups of Democrats who voted for Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984. The imagery -- a black man, out of prison and laying in wait to sexually assault white women and murder white men -- definitely deserves a place in this rogue’s gallery of offensive political ads.