Taking It to the People

How do you sell out the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City on a chilly Monday night in January with a political fundraiser?

Easy. Tell the people you want some anti-Bush television ads, put some of the entertainment world's best progressive minds on the stage, and send the invite out to a million people.

MoveOn.org's "Bush In 30 Seconds" contest, in which members were asked to submit 30-second television ads demonstrating any failure of the Bush administration, culminated Monday night in a celebrity-lined awards ceremony in which the winners in each category -- Best Overall, People's Choice, Funniest, and Best Youth Ad -- were announced.

Over 1,500 entries were submitted (500 were cut for legal and decency issues); 110,000 people visited the website to vote. 15 finalists rose to the top, and a panel of judges -- Janeane Garofalo, Russell Simmons, Moby, Margaret Cho, Al Franken, Michael Moore, all in attendance at the event -- voted on the Best Overall Ad, while winners in each of the sub-categories were chosen by run-off voting online.

Getting the message of the winning ads out is the next step. Where conservatives have larger pools of money to spend on advertising campaigns, as well as better connections to the moguls of corporate media, MoveOn is relying on its membership to fund the placement in upcoming weeks.

In addition to the $7.5 million raised so far to be spent on running the ad on CNN during the President's State of the Union Address, MoveOn Campaigns Director Eli Pariser announced at the event that they were launching a campaign for an additional media placement: during this year's Super Bowl. Seeking out the $1.6 million in funding such a placement would require, MoveOn asked its members for their continued support. If approved by CBS, "Child's Pay" would be the first political ad to run nationally during the Super Bowl.

Filmmaker Michael Moore supports the move to wider national audience. "For years, progressives have been standing there with their arms folded over their chests, saying, 'Mainstream media is bad. We don't like it,'" he said. "They've just been refusing to play the game. Well, it's time to play the game. This is where people get their information." A tripled-pronged strategy -- using donations for mainstream media placements, traditional grassroots organizing (such as Clergy Leadership Network organizing progressive church leaders and their congregations), and harnessing the power of the Internet as MoveOn and Howard Dean have -- must be employed under one progressive umbrella.

MoveOn's success thus far has come largely from not only building an Internet constituency, but their ability to focus their membership immediately on a single issue at hand and direct them on how to take action. Previously disparate groups of progressives are brought together quickly and effectively through these email calls-to-action, and the "Bush In 30 Seconds" contest was no different.

Two of the ads, however, slipped through their screening process and have been the target of a Republican smear campaign against them. The two ads in question both compared Bush's policies and tactics to those of Adolf Hitler, and the Republican National Committee was quick to denounce MoveOn as a perpetrator of "the worst and most vile form of political hate speech." MoveOn responded immediately, pulling the ads from their website, apologizing for having let them slip through the screening process.

The energy of the event was high and the ads got as much applause as the entertainers who took to the stage. Pariser commented after the event, "As much as everyone appreciated the celebrities, the ads were just loved. We're lucky to have gotten such great creative [talent] in the process."

The judging panel and the participants in the run-off voting were of like minds, with winner "Child's Pay" capturing both the overall winning ad and the People's Choice award. Created by 38-year-old advertising executive Charlie Fisher of Denver, it depicts children working in difficult service and manufacturing jobs -- washing dishes, hauling trash, repairing tires, cleaning offices, working assembly lines and swiping groceries -- followed by the line: "Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1 trillion deficit?"

Fisher spent about $1,500 out of his own pocket, had the children of friends appear in the ad (providing them with gift certificates to toy stores as payment). He says that he wanted to create an ad that wouldn't fall into the "preaching to the choir" category. "I wanted to expose the big spenders, and the fact that my kids, our kids, all of them are the ones that are going to be paying for what the administration is doing right now," explained Fisher. His mother, Bridget Fisher, commented that while the rest of their family doesn't necessarily agree with Charlie on every issue -- his father is a Republican -- they were proud of the fact that he "always goes for what he believes in. This is something that could appeal to a wide range of people."

That appeal seemed to be on the minds of many of the finalists. Ty Pierce and Mark Wolfe, winners of the Best Animated Ad category with their "What I Been Up To" spot, said that the more conservative viewer was their target audience. By using animation, they said, "we could have fun, and not seem vindictive. We could get them thinking without knowing that they were thinking." When they sent it out to friends and family, the ad soon spread to wider and wider circles of friends. One woman wrote them an email that said, "I'm a conservative Bush supporter, but I liked the ad and you've got my vote."

The question, then, for progressives to ask next is who the target audience of these types of ads should be: rallying the core progressives to get out the vote, seeking out fence-sitters whose minds might be changed by a grassroots campaign, appealing to unmarried women, minority and other disenfranchised voters with typically low turnouts, or all of the above. Perhaps the image of the "typical progressive" should be the first place to start. One audience member who came with a friend expected the event to be filled with "a lot of crazy purple-haired people with piercings," and was surprised to find a much more mainstream audience surrounding her.

With this contest, MoveOn has brought national attention to a grassroots movement that, until recently, was considered to be the domain of the crazy purple-haired people. What happens next, however, is up to not just the voters in November, but the people who get the information to the voters. As audience member Marc Williams said, "We can't rely on the mainstream media to tell us what's going on. People don't have any idea what's at stake with this election, and we can't solely count on the fact that we have the truth on our side. We've got the alternative means of information distribution at our disposal, and it's crucial that we stay focused and get the information out there however we can."

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