When the interminable showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore--or Al W. Gore, as David Letterman calls him--finally winds down, will there be anything to miss? Well, yes, actually, I think we'll miss the jokes. Both candidates have made for fine comedy material, and apparently even the candidates themselves have had the opportunity to enjoy Saturday Night Live, for instance, making a mockery of them making a mockery of political debate. My favorite recurring bit, which I'm sad to say seems to have been discontinued, was Alan Kalter's Campaign Roundup, in which the David Letterman announcer simply sang the hook from "Who Let the Dogs Out?" at the top of his lungs. Pretty much says it all, if you ask me. Big time.
Anyway, it's one thing for the talk shows to make fun of political candidates, but it seems like something of a watershed when consumer product companies start doing the same thing in their ads. There are at least two examples, one more pointed than the other. One involves a small surprise, so if you want to see it before I give it away, you can check out the ad here via Adcritic.com (you'll need QuickTime); a slightly less effective version of the same surprise happens at this related Web site. The sharper ad is for, of all things, Snickers candy bars. You can see it either on Adcritic or on the Snickers site.
The Ads: The first spot shows office-seeker Bob Fremgen, strolling in a playground. "No candidate cares more about our kids," says the saccharine announcer. Fremgen begins to address the camera but is abruptly pushed to the ground--by the Energizer bunny. Yes, the long-lasting Energizer tactic of a spoof ad that turns out to be for the batteries and their famous mascot is still with us. Energizer extends the gag to bobfremgen.com (also being hyped in various banner ads on politics-related Web pages), with candidate facts (13 kids), slogan ("Without children, there would be no adults"), and mythology (He started his campaign alone in a shed and now has headquarters in a strip mall over by the Hunan River Garden).
In the Snickers commercial, a young guy walks into a voting booth, and, once behind the curtain, is beset upon by two small animated creatures: elephant and donkey, one whispering into each of vote-boy's ears. "Psst," the elephant says. "Vote for me. My dad was president. I even look like my dad." "Big deal," the donkey counters. "My dad was a senator." As vote-boy knits his brow in Gen-X befuddled ambivalence, the creatures plow ahead (speaking in hammy cartoon voices that sound nothing like the actual candidates). Elephant notes that he and his dad have the same shoe size, and donkey counters that he invented the Internet, "and some other stuff, too." "Once my mom thought I was my dad," elephant boasts. (Creepy.) "The space shuttle--that was mine," replies donkey. Elephant: "On the phone, people think I'm my dad." Donkey puckers: "Kiss me, I'm on TV." Here the announcer cuts in to suggest that if you're not going anywhere for a while, you may as well have a Snickers, which is what vote-boy does while he wallows in his indecision. "My dad and I wear the same pants," the elephant remarks. (What?!) "I invented pants," the donkey claims. And the tag line: Hungry? Grab a Snickers.
Yay or Nay? The Energizer spot falls well short of hilarity in this instance, but it's surprising that this trick still works at all--this time in part because it takes advantage of the blizzard of interchangeable political ads for local, statewide, and national candidates that seem to dominate commercial time as Election Day approaches. With extra credit for the Web site, give it a C-plus.
I think the Snickers spot deserves an A, however. People have been e-mailing me about it since it started airing (correctly naming the advertised product, which isn't always the case with popular ads). What is it that they're responding to? In a campaign season whose dominant theme has been its own banality, this seems like as effective a satire of the trivialities of political discourse as any we've seen, jabbing at candidates and voter alike. It probably works in the spot's favor that it's for a product whose ads have never been remotely interesting in the past. Of course, the ultimate message--maybe this ephemeral consumer product can obliterate the shame of your ignorance for a moment or two--is kind of depressing. But hey, that's politics for you.