Not On Our Side

"What if the same men who profited from the war had to fight it?" That's the question viewers are asked to imagine as a pudgy corporate executive parachutes from a jet into Iraq, hiding behind his briefcase in the middle of the war zone. A voiceover by Kevin Bacon informs viewers, "Since declaring war in Iraq, companies with close ties to the Bush government have made billions. They're getting rich, our soldiers are putting their lives on the line."

The edgy animated ad, "Who Profits," directed by Wildbrain Animation, appeared on week 8 of MoveOn PAC's 10 Weeks: Don't Get Mad Get Even campaign.

While the GOP is digging deep into its trusty, old bag of dirty tricks this year, progressive organizations are tapping into the artistic community to chart new territory. The ten-week countdown to the election, which started at the end of August, offers a new 30-second ad each week, giving creative license to well-known filmmakers, writers, actors, comedians and artists. The challenge: to reinvent the political commercial.

"There needed to be something fresh in the political ad world," said director and screenwriter Clay Tarver, who along with Jesse Peretz directed a series of "Jimmy the Cab Driver" spots for the MoveOn PAC campaign. The ads, featuring actor Donal Logue as Jimmy, are being unveiled each week alongside the ten 30-second spots in the countdown. "We were very careful about not making them preachy," Tarver said. "There's an art to making a 30-second ad that says something. To be effective, you have to be smart about your comedy."

One of the sharp-witted spots has Jimmy, best known for his musings on pop culture on MTV, saying to his captive taxi passenger, "Hey. September 11. You know, 15 of these characters are from Saudi Arabia. You know, Saudi Arabia. You know a lot of people are saying 'Hey look, al Qaeda, they're in Indonesia. They're in Pakistan. They're in Yemen.' And George Bush is like, 'That's exactly what the enemy is expecting us to do. We're going to Iraq!' You know, they're using their noodle. I would never have anticipated that."

As with other 10 Weeks participants, Tarver and his crew volunteered their time. "I think it was pretty easy for Jesse to crew this project up," says Tarver. "Everyone was willing to volunteer; people are really motivated this year. The choice seems like, for anyone who has access to any of these [media] portals, do you just take what Karl Rove has to say, or do you do something about it?"

Among those in the creative community who like Tarver, Peretz and Logue enthusiastically joined the MoveOn campaign were Matt Damon, Scarlett Johanssen, Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Romijn, Margaret Cho, Woody Harelson, Illeana Douglas and Ione Skye. Directors included Rob Reiner, Benny Boom, John Sayles, Allison Anders, Doug Limon and Richard Linklater. Effectively using their wits and their wit for political advocacy, they wrote, directed, acted in, or did voiceovers for the 10 Weeks spots.

The commercials run the gamut: some speak to issues while others appeal to principles; some use humor and irony to get their message across while others play it straight; some highlight everyday folks while others feature well-known celebrities. The topics range from the war in Iraq to tax cuts to the environment to voter registration. Most of the ads end with the simple message: "George Bush. He's not on our side."

"We chose that tagline because this administration is not on the side of the American people," explained Laura Dawn, MoveOn's Event and Cultural Director. "The idea behind the campaign was that creative commercials could cut through the bad information that people were getting."

The 10 Weeks campaign was announced at the Sundance Film Festival after MoveOn's Voter Fund screened the winning ads from its Bush in 30 Seconds contest. This initial competition, held last fall, invited the general public to develop 30-second spots on President Bush's policies, with the MoveOn Voter Fund airing the best ad on national television to coincide with the President's State of the Union Address. The winner of the nationwide search was Charlie Fisher, an advertising executive from Denver, whose memorable and emotive commercial "Child's Pay" taps into American values by questioning the legacy of debt that we are leaving our children.

Dawn considers this first campaign an enormous success: "We were hoping to get 300 ads, but the response was massive." The contest garnered over 1,500 submissions. Bush in 30 Seconds also provided an avenue for the MoveOn Voter Fund to bring celebrities on board by inviting them to judge the ads, and ultimately helped in the recruitment of artists for the 10 Weeks campaign.

The first of the 10 Weeks ads to be unveiled, "Everybody," was directed by music video and commercial director Benny Boom, and has a strong "get out the vote" message aimed at youth voters and African American voters. Boom says of the ad's voter registration message, "there is power in numbers and in this election everybody needs to get out and do their part." Although "Everybody" was aired on MTV and BET, among others, 10 Weeks is primarily an internet campaign, although MoveOn PAC has been testing the ads and plans to run several in swing states in the coming weeks.

One of the most compelling upcoming ads, "Mistake," directed by Rob Reiner, features George Bush in a press conference in April of this year, when he was asked by a reporter if he had made any mistakes in his presidency. In the infamous footage, Bush stammers, unable to identify a single mistake, but Reiner reminds us that under the President 3.8 million Americans have lost their health insurance, 1.4 million Americans have lost their jobs, and 6,000 Americans have been killed or wounded in Iraq.

Other spots include the earnest, documentary-style ads of director Richard Linklater entitled "A Real West Texan," and of John Sayles who directed "American Opinions." Allison Anders adapts an excerpt from Al Franken's book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them" in a piece called, "The Pie." Charlie Fisher, winner of the Bush in 30 Seconds contest, packs a punch with his new ad on the environment, which features music by Moby. Doug Limon's spot, "The Disappeared," focuses on the disappearance of jobs in America since Bush took office. And the clever "Stranded Republicans" featuring Rebecca Romijn suggests that President Bush has left Republicans behind.

Yet potentially far more significant than the impact of any one of these ads on its own, the 10 Weeks campaign is important as part of a larger trend: helping to make politics and political activism hip. Today artists, directors, writers, actors, comedians, animators, musicians, and designers are involved in the political process in more innovative and far-reaching ways than ever before. Sure there have always been celebrities stumping for politicians, as well as athletes and actors running for office, but the scale and scope of involvement in 2004 is unprecedented.

"Just a year ago, the artists and celebrities who spoke out were getting attacked and condemned. We've helped to move the conversation to a much higher level," said Dawn. "There was also a lot of apathy out there. Our goal was to find new and creative ways to raise awareness and to get the truth to people and we feel like we accomplished what we set out to do. But we still have a lot of work ahead of us."

Dawn reflected, "We are still learning what people respond to and we're beginning to recognize how important cultural and visual signifiers are in elections." She added, "What we were absolutely right about was that people get their information primarily from television and that political ads can have an enormous impact on voters."

While the jury is out as to whether celebrity endorsements have any impact on campaigns, what MoveOn PAC has done, by tapping into the creativity of the artistic community rather than simply trading on celebrity, is clearly groundbreaking. In unleashing the power of the creative sector, which is predominantly made up of progressives, the innovative 10 Weeks campaign begins to draw upon one of Democrats' unique, competitive advantages.

In the long run, the real potential may be to use television and this creative energy, which MoveOn has so successfully harnessed, to speak directly to the American public with a resonance that political ads have never before achieved. The challenge is not only to raise awareness and to speak the truth, but moreover to articulate, promote and bring to life the progressive values that unite us as a nation.

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