From witches to 'Aqua Buddha': why Election 2010 ads are so outrageous

Is Christine O'Donnell a witch? Does Rand Paul worship the 'Aqua Buddha'? These have been the subjects of two legitimate political ads in Election 2010. What's going on?

Mandi Wright/AP
Michigan's Republican gubernatorial candidate, Rick Snyder, is one tough nerd – or at least his campaign ads say so. Other campaign ads in Election 2010 have talked about witches, demon sheep, and the 'Aqua Buddha' – taking the political ad into new and outlandish territory. Here, Snyder debates Democrat Virg Bernero at the Detroit Public Broadcast studio in Wixom, Mich., Oct. 10.

Witches, demon sheep, one tough nerd – top costume choices for this Halloween?
Maybe, but at the moment these are just a few of the topics in political ads this midterm election cycle. Opening an ad for Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell of Delaware with the words “I am not a witch"?

Perhaps "brilliant," if you believe to CNN's "Spitzer/Parker" cohost Eliot Spitzer. Perhaps not, if you look at the polls, where Ms. O'Donnell still trails by some 20 points.

But one thing is for sure – outlandish, outrageous, downright kooky ad material, which not too long ago would have been banished to the catchy-but-unthinkable file, is pretty much all over the place.

And, says senior Republican strategist David Johnson, it is here to stay.

The political culture is adjusting to changing viewer and reader habits, he says. With so many sources of information, from TV to the Internet and mobile devices, it’s harder than ever to stand out.

“The more extreme, the more colorful your ad is to draw attention you will stand out,” he says. “It is very much like reality TV. The way to stand out is controversy."

California Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina cast her primary opponent, Tom Campbell, as a demon sheep. Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder, who has staked himself to a large lead in the polls, has characterized himself as "one tough nerd" in ads. Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate is running ads about a college prank in which opponent Rand Paul allegedly demanded that a blindfolded woman pray to the "Aqua Buddha."

New age for ads

Consultants know they only have a single shot at your attention, he points out. Moreover, the real goal these days is to get picked up by other media – from the evening news to YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. “The goal is to be so controversial that the 'Today Show’ and ‘Good Morning America’ will replay the clip endlessly and comment on it, keeping the candidate front and center for millions of viewers,” says Mr. Johnson.

In the case of Ms. O’Donnell, he says, this national coverage provides the additional bonus of delivering her message to fellow tea partyers far beyond her own geographical constituency. “That certainly helps with her fundraising,” he adds.

Increasingly, many ads are not even produced to run as TV spots, but rather are released on DVD or on a website for the sole purpose of being replayed – all at little cost to the campaign. This has allowed campaigns to change the format, as well, says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center.

“You are no longer just on TV, so you can do ads on YouTube, you can do ads longer than 30 seconds that can go viral,” he says. “You can target specific audiences, and that opens up the kind of storytelling and ads you can do.”

The number of political novices and outsiders in Election 2010 has also spiced the rhetorical stew, says Joe Erwin, former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. ”The field is full of nontraditional candidates this time, and that changes the kinds of ads we are seeing,” he says.

Entertaining, yes. But successful?

But Mr. Erwin points out that media attention doesn’t necessarily translate into votes.

He heartily disagrees with Spitzer’s positive spin on the O’Donnell ad. “If you have to start out by telling people you are not a witch, you are in big trouble, sister,” he says with a laugh, not because it’s true, “but because it means you are playing the game on your opponent’s turf.”

While a rise in negative ads is predictable in the home stretch just before a vote, there really are more this season. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, 20 percent of ads this year attack the personal characteristics of opponents. In 2008, that figure was 14 percent.

Where can it go from here? Mr. Johnson expects the trend only to grow.

In a current Georgia statehouse contest, one of the candidates had been in an altercation with his girlfriend. His opponent got the police record and used the mug shot to put out a direct mail flier that called the candidate an attempted murderer.

“This is the kind of stuff that grabs your attention,” he says. "It’s really bad, but it's what we’re going to see more of.”

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