The Best and Worst Presidential Campaign Ads of the Year
A look back at which campaign ads won over voters and which won laughs, but weren't trying to be funny
While Hollywood is gearing up for the Golden Globes on January 15th (also known as the precursor to its version of the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards), the political world, or “Hollywood for ugly people” as it is sometimes jokingly called, is gearing up for its own Golden Globes: the first presidential primaries, before its own Super Bowl next November. Therefore I thought it only fitting to give awards for the best short films in politics this year, also known as political ads. Though a recent analysis published in the New York Times noted that voters in the early primary states have been subjected to about two-thirds fewer ads than they had at this point in the last presidential primary, they have still endured thousands of them.
Below is my take on the best and worst of the bunch. It’s worth noting that just like in Hollywood where there are blockbuster major studio films that can afford to spend millions on Oscar campaigns while indie flicks struggle to see the light of day, there are a couple of candidates who had the money to flood the airways more than others, so their repeat appearances on the lists below were unavoidable.
But please feel free to weigh in with your thoughts, comments and nominees for others.
Just so you know, I decided to focus strictly on the ads themselves, not on who deserves best actor, actress, and supporting nods, so please definitely weigh in on those, and of course on who deserves a Razzie or two.
Worst 2012 Primary Ads of the Year
5. Ron Paul, “Big Dog”
I love dogs, but this ad using dogs as a metaphor for…something is…well there’s no other way to say it. It’s a dog with major woof factor.
4. Rick Perry, "American Story"
This ad was going okay. The Texas Governor’s wife was helping to present another side of Rick Perry to voters to counter the image that’s been left by the odd, rambling figure who’s shown up at debates. Just when it seemed the Perry campaign had finally delivered a homerun, the candidate swoops in at the end and ruins things. Or should I say jumps in? I have a feeling I’m not the only one who shouted, “Watch out! Mugger!” at the screen when Perry came flying out of nowhere.
3. Rick Santorum, Pop Up Video
What is there to really say except, Rick Santorum + an homage to 90's staple pop up video = awkward comedy gold. Only I don’t think this ad is supposed to be funny. If it is, it's probably supposed to be "laugh with me not at me funny." It's not.
This ad is so bad it’s damn near good—like “Saturday Night Live” spoof good. A man who looks like the kind of guy your parents would tell the cops about if he hovered near your playground when you were a kid, wants us all to know that he thinks Herman Cain will put the “United back in the United States of America.” For emphasis, he then sends the message home with a puff of his cigarette. (At least I think it was for emphasis. Maybe the guy really just couldn’t wait for a smoke?) But the Herminator himself really gives the ad its winning ending with a creepy smile, the likes of which we haven’t seen on a presidential campaign trail since Rudy Giuliani tried to convince us he was a fun and likable guy.
1. Rick Perry, "Stronger"
I’m sure some of you already saw this coming, and I’m also pretty sure I may take a bit of flack for what I’m about to type next but this is actually a pretty smart ad. I mean the messaging is not my cup of tea but then I’m not really Mr. Perry’s target audience. (Not being an Iowan for starters and then there’s that small detail of me not disliking gay people, but I digress.) The biggest failure of this ad, however, is not what Perry says, but when he said it. If he had actually released this ad shortly after his debut, the die-hard religious conservatives he was hoping to reach with it might have seen it as more than a cynical ploy to salvage what’s left of a campaign that’s sinking faster than the Titanic. Standing up for what you believe in—no matter how much others disagree—is a characteristic people look for in a leader. Pandering out of desperation? Not so much. But there is one upside of this ad for the rest of us: it may end up being the most parodied ad of the election cycle. Here are just a few.
This ad is actually not bad…for a Democratic primary. Unfortunately for Mr. Johnson he was, at the time of its release, running in a Republican primary, where I’m not so sure that ads focused on messages like, “It's not American to stir up irrational fears about other Americans' religious beliefs,” go over so well. Maybe he can use it for his rumored third party run?
Best 2012 Primary Ads of the Year
5. Rick Perry, "Remedy" (Click HERE to watch)
This ad is a powerful reminder that had Rick Perry not bungled his debate performances, he could have seriously given Romney a run for his money. The ad opens with an image of Mitt Romney looking into a mirror and seeing the image of President Obama staring back at him. Calling “Obamacare: the most damaging prescription for America,” the word “Obamacare” is subsequently used interchangeably with “Romneycare.” That’s just the beginning. The ad fires many more shots at Romney as it goes on.
If there were an Olympics for attack ads, Ron Paul would have earned multiple medals this year. Mr. Polite in the debates takes off the gloves hard core when it comes to his ads, so much so that I couldn’t pick just one for this list. These three attack ads are pretty much near perfection. “Serial Hypocrisy” uses Newt Gingrich’s own words, as well as the words of a number of high profile conservatives, including self-professed party kingmaker Rush Limbaugh to bury the former Speaker. But perhaps the most brutal blow the ad delivers is its depiction of Gingrich in a love fest with one of the most loathed liberals on the planet: former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “Selling Access” is more of the same message, but features the devastating attack line, “This guy hasn’t just got skeletons in his closet he’s got a whole graveyard.” Then there’s his anti-Perry ad, which makes it sound like Rick Perry and Al Gore had some sort of political love affair. The horror!
3. Mitt Romney, "Bump in the Road"
This particular ad is part of Romney’s “I’m-already-looking-ahead-to-the-general-election-campaign” strategy. It features a clip of the President making a reference to America’s economic situation being a “Bump in the Road,” and uses that line as the jumping off point for the ad. Americans of different ages, and notably, different races, holding up Romney for President signs with handwritten notes on them describing their dire financial situations as they say “I’m not a Bump in the Road. I’m an American.”
2. Jon Huntsman, "Flip-Flop"
In of the most effective attack ads of the primary season (at least it would have been had it originated from a candidate who had actually managed to crack double digits) the Huntsman campaign methodically uses Mitt Romney’s own words to make it appear as though he is incapable of sticking with anything he’s previously said—ever. By the end of it you’re left thinking that he may just change his name from Mitt Romney before the election’s over. In the midst of clips of Romney discussing his multiple position changes the ad features a toy that keeps—you guessed it—flip-flopping. My guess is third party candidate Gary Johnson may want to ask Huntsman to borrow this ad in a few months, that is if the Obama campaign isn’t already using it by then.
1. Romney, "In America, Anything is Possible"
This ad does something that very few television ads, interviews and debate performances have managed to do: it makes Mitt Romney seem human. Not just human. It actually makes him look downright Kennedy-esque, Hyannis Port handsome: tanned, relaxed yet presidential. More importantly, it begs comparisons to one of the most iconic political ads of all time: Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning in America Again.” Both ads tapped into the pride Americans instinctually want to feel for our country—no matter how bad things are going. Mark my words. We will be seeing a version of this ad, in the general election should Romney become the nominee.
Jon Huntsman, Campaign Launch Ad
I’ll be the first to admit that this ad is kind of weird. It’s really long and it doesn’t feature the candidate at all, or any voters. (I did say it’s kind of weird.) But sometimes taking a risk works and there’s something risky about this ad that made me want to watch it until the end. Granted, I’m probably not the Huntsman campaign’s target audience, but I thought it deserved credit for trying something different and not looking like every other ad out there. And for what it’s worth the scenery is really beautiful. This ad is definitely deserving of a best cinematography campaign ad “Oscar” for sure.
Ron Paul, Life
My personal feelings on this particular political issue aside, I think most voters appreciate when politicians can articulate a personal reason for their political beliefs. It sets the true believers apart from the opportunists. In one of his few non-attack ads, Paul makes a compelling case for why he is pro-life. The ad makes me uncomfortable. But then maybe that’s what it’s supposed to do.
Keli Goff is a senior contributor for Loop 21. Learn more about her at KeliGoff.com