The Supreme Court’s Citizens United vs. FEC decision, which allowed for corporations and unions to spend freely from their treasuries, opened the floodgates of campaign spending and has increased the number of off-year campaign commercials dramatically. Although 2012 will undoubtedly feature more numerous (and more outlandish) television ads in the Presidential contest, this post will pay homage to the very best (and worst) of 2011.
This ad released in early December by Rick Perry’s campaign will likely be the single most memorable commercial of 2011. In the ad, the Texas Governor stands in a meadow and despairs that “gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” This line has generated considerable criticism from the gay rights movement and left-leaning groups. Perry stood by the ad, but it is unclear whether it ended up doing him more good than harm. (As of January 17, the ad had some 750,000 dislikes on YouTube, compared to only 25,000 likes.)
Produced by the Democratic National Committee, this advertisement attacks GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney for what most political analysts believe is the former Massachusetts Governor’s biggest flaw: allegations of flip-flopping. Billed as a trailer for a faux-movie (Mitt vs. Mitt, “the story of two men trapped in one body”), the commercial attacks Romney for his evolving positions on issues such as abortion and health care reform. The ad ultimately directs viewers to MittvMitt.com, where an even more scathing four-minute version of the video is online.
“Serial Hypocrisy” (http://youtu.be/CWKTOCP45zY)
Arguably the slickest and most cut-throat advertisements of 2011 were some of those produced by the campaign of Texas Congressman Ron Paul. This ad attacking former Speaker Newt Gingrich, employs sophisticated video editing, pulse-quickening music and old video footage of Gingrich (including a clip of him endorsing tough climate change legislation with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi). The ad is widely believed to have contributed to Gingrich’s mid-December decline in the polls and worse-than-expected performance in the Iowa caucuses.
“He Carried Yellow Flowers” (http://youtu.be/dSlC7BxmSqY)
This nearly four-minute long advertisement produced in August by the now-defunct campaign of Herman Cain will likely be remembered as the most bizarre ad of the 2012 Presidential cycle. It opens with the text, “There was a time in America when a man was a man, a horse was a horse, and a man on a horse was just a man on a horse … unless he carried Yellow Flowers.” In the Western-themed commercial, one cowboy accuses another of being “yellow” because of the color of a bouquet of flowers he is carrying, to which the latter cowboy asks the first why everything has to be about color — what is he, a liberal? The ad goes on to feature a celebrity endorsement by actor Nick Searcy, as well as a nonsensical fight scene. It is unclear the effect the ad had on Cain’s campaign, and it recalls some of 2008 long-shot Mike Gravel’s odd commercials (see http://youtu.be/0rZdAB4V_j8).
“Now is the time for action” (http://youtu.be/qhm-22Q0PuM)
This ad, also produced by Cain’s campaign, is perhaps not as odd as “He Carried Yellow Flowers,” but is perhaps the most famous commercial of 2011. In it, Cain campaign chief of staff Matt Block addresses the viewer directly, “Tomorrow is one day closer to the White House,” and “I really believe Herman Cain will put ‘united’ back in the United States of America.” The memorable part of the ad, however, is the long, dramatic drag Block takes from a cigarette at the end (with patriotic music playing in the background). It is unclear why the Cain campaign decided to use this bizarre footage, although Block later commented, “There was no subliminal message. In fact, I personally would encourage people not to smoke. It’s just that I’m a smoker.”
“Smokin’ Ad” (http://youtu.be/iOYVB2hc0HA)
This commercial, one of many that mock Cain’s infamous smoking ad, was perhaps the best press Ambassador Jon Huntsman’s now-defunct campaign received all year. In the video (one of several released in the past several months), Huntsman’s three daughters — the “Jon2012Girls” — mocked Matt Block by wearing glasses and fake mustaches, mimicked his speech from Cain’s commercial and dramatically blew bubbles at the end of the ad — set to the same patriotic music, of course.
“BIG DOG” (http://youtu.be/MXCZVmQ74OA)
This is just one of a series of ads the Paul campaign came out with late in 2011 trying to broaden the libertarian-leaning Congressman’s appeal. The ad asks, “What’s up with these sorry politicians? Lots of bark, but when it’s showtime, whimpering like little shiatsus!” The commercial looks to be inspired by a pick-up truck ad, and ends with the decisive, “Ron Paul: do it!” This advertisement was part of a concentrated effort by Paul to expand his support beyond his traditional base of college students and get-off-my-lawn conservatives. As reflected in Paul’s surprisingly high level of national support, it appears that the effort may have paid serious dividends.
“Ron Paul: Wrong on Marriage” (http://youtu.be/dI2IqfxT9XU)
It wasn’t until Paul rose in the Iowa polls in late December that his opponents and outside groups began to attack his more unorthodox positions. This ad, released by the National Organization for Marriage, attacks Paul for his position on same-sex marriage (he has said in the past that the government should stay out of the issue). The 30-second commercial noted that Paul is the only major candidate not to sign a pledge to preserve traditional marriage. The attack — certainly a potent one among the Republican base — may have contributed to halting Paul’s Iowa surge (he finished a somewhat disappointing third in the caucuses).
“Romney’s Remedy” (http://youtu.be/LfcOGWRfXdk)
This ad, released in October by Perry, is almost undeniably the most brutal and vicious campaign commercial of 2011. The slickly produced commercial is dark, set to chilling music and attacks Mitt Romney and his assertions that he is a “conservative.” The ad points out connections between Romney’s healthcare plan in Massachusetts and what Perry derides as “Obamacare” and attacks Romney for flip-flopping. (In one scene reminiscent of Black Swan, President Obama looks in a mirror and sees Romney staring back at him.)
“Believe in America” (http://youtu.be/H3a7FC0Jkv8)
Released by Romney’s campaign, this ad attacks President Obama for his stewardship of the economy. The commercial has been exceptionally controversial, however, with even some notable conservatives urging Romney to take it down. The sticking point is the audio in the ad of President Obama declaring, “If we talk about the economy, we are going to lose.” As many politicos have pointed out, this statement was made by then-Senator Obama in 2008 when he was quoting an advisor to Senator John McCain. Despite the realization that the quote was taken out of context, Romney has stood by the ad — a strategist to his campaign said, “It’s very important that Republican voters know the Romney campaign is going to take the fight to Obama and never give them even an inch.”
“Perry’s Vaccine” (http://youtu.be/oeFGXwxQmdk)
Although the Presidential campaign of Rep. Michele Bachmann struggled with fundraising throughout 2011, a Bachmann-aligned Super PAC released this ad in September. The commercial attacks Rick Perry for his decision to inoculate every girl in Texas with the HPV vaccine — a move reviled by small-government conservatives. The line of attack — epitomized by this commercial — is a major reason that Perry’s once high-flying campaign crashed back to Earth in early fall.