If all you knew about the upcoming presidential election was what you saw in the ads on TV, you might be expecting a relatively subdued contest. Most of the professionally produced campaign spots strike muted, if critical, tones: They ask viewers to "censure" President Bush, or call John Kerry's positions "troubling"—not exactly rhetoric that brings Willie Horton to mind. But a reliable dose of vitriol can still be found on the Web, where voters have whipped up a spate of homemade ads—the kind blissfully untrammeled by FCC regulations, focus groups, or old-fashioned good taste.
Most of the professional ads gently target the undecided. The voice-over is reassuringly authoritative, the imagery emotionally manipulative, the script simple and suggestive. This season has seen a crop of homemade ads (perhaps prompted by MoveOn.org's anti-Bush ad contest). These tend to be made by self-styled political junkies and meant for people who've already made up their minds. After all, if your browser finds its way to crushkerry.com, odds are you're not exactly on the fence.
The most entertaining homemade anti-Kerry ads play off recognizable Republican talking points. This spot picks up the familiar Republican charge that Kerry is a flip-flopper, and opens with a sound bite that Kerry's opponents hope you've already heard: Kerry saying "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it." In the creepy shot that follows, Kerry's head is grafted onto the body of a diaper-clad dancing baby. The nightmare-inducing Kerry baby grooves to the theme song from "Flipper" as a list of issues (gay marriage, abortion, marijuana) scrolls up the screen. Just in case the whole thing is a bit too subtle, the list is punctuated by a shot of a purple flip-flop. Another spot, which was produced by a Republican media consultant in his spare time, features stereotypically French people who just can't get enough of the Democratic candidate. "John Kerry is brave enough to raise taxes," says one smiling Frenchwoman, as cutesy, I'd-rather-be-eating-cheese music plays in the background. Another man, wearing a beret, tells us, "If I could vote for John Kerry, I would!" His moderately accented English is easy to understand, but just in case you have trouble, subtitles are included—real Americans, after all, don't understand the French, even when they speak our language.
The anti-Bush spots are funny too, but the jokes are grounded in rage. This one begins like a typical campaign ad—a somber announcer tells us that "George W. Bush has failed America." Then it gets down to business. "To make matters worse," says the announcer, "George W. Bush is a flatulent, arrogant pussbag, a lying sack of horseshit, and an assface ignorant fuckhead." The words appear onscreen over the president's face, as though you're watching a particularly contentious episode of The McLaughlin Group. Others, like this offering from an organization (satirically) called Billionaires for Bush, take a subtler approach. "Like you, I've got loved ones in Iraq," says a middle-aged executive in a suit, as he gestures towards a photo of an oil rig sitting on his desk. Later, as he explains that he supports Bush "because he's just like us," his mouth curls into a devilish, Monty Burns style grin.
There's also a certain pride of ownership in some of the homemade spots that's almost endearing. This anti-Kerry effort, for example, was "UPDATED on March 14th with a new PROFESSIONAL VOICE OVER!" The spot itself opens with an unflattering shot of Kerry biting into a hoagie and closes with a picture of the candidate with his arm around a clown. In between, the announcer uses the word "liberal" no less than seven times. And this decidedly low-budget affair, which is billed as one of the "great moments in subliminal advertising," is reminiscent of an infamous Republican National Committee ad from 2000 in which the word RATS flashed briefly on the screen during a spot criticizing Al Gore's prescription drug proposal. The short spot features a tiny rabbit bouncing around on a heart-filled screen below the phrase "Fluffy Bunny Loves George Bush!!!" That's followed by a split-second shot of the words "Kerry is Antichrist" and a picture of the Democratic candidate. Perhaps this one's meant to be tongue in cheek—or maybe the ad's creator is just trying to explain why some Catholic bishops don't want Kerry to receive communion.
It's hard to imagine how these homegrown efforts could have much of an effect on the election's outcome. But some commentators have argued that this contest will depend more upon energizing the base than persuading the wishy-washy. If that's the case, homemade ads may have their part to play: They provide a (not always healthy) forum in which creator and viewer can luxuriate in their mutual hatred of a particular candidate. And when you're preaching to the converted, you only need to remind them that they're right.