The Power of Absurdity in Political Ads

What Women Really Think
Oct. 19 2010 1:04 PM

The Power of Absurdity in Political Ads

I had high hopes for one of the newest ads in the California Senate race because it opens with a tuxedoed tenor singing the Republican candidate’s name in an Italian accent ("Fee-yor-ee-nuh!"). But then the ad, an Emily’s List creation slamming Carly Fiorina, fizzles into seriousness, wasting its playful premise. ("Carly Fiorina, you laid off 33,000 employees … it’s time to face the music." Blah.) The ad, called "Opera," needed help from the Democratic equivalent of Fred Davis, the Republican ad-maker who rarely lets an opportunity for humor or absurdity pass him by.

Davis was behind two of Fiorina’s most memorable ads. He created the bizarre one depicting Fiorina’s primary opponent Tom Campbell as a demon sheep , a tax-and-spender masquerading as a fiscal conservative. He also created "Hot Air: The Movie," released in March, in which incumbent Barbara Boxer’s head swells to a massive blimp that drifts across the country, terrorizing Californians and talking all the way. That one was reminiscent of the ad Davis did for John McCain in ’08, depicting Barack Obama as the " biggest celebrity in the world ," akin to Paris Hilton.


"If I picked what's on my tombstone, it would be: 'If you don't notice it, why bother?'" Davis told the Washington Post in a September profile.

Most of the recent ads in California’s senate race have been more conventional productions. Leading by a small margin , Boxer has attacked her opponent’s record while CEO of Hewlett-Packard, saying Fiorina destroyed jobs while enriching herself . Fiorina, meanwhile, has attacked Boxer as an arrogant partisan whose profligate spending has … destroyed jobs while enriching herself. (Whoa!) Boxer has also called Fiorina "extreme" on social issues (like abortion) and done her best to pair Fiorina with the polarizing Mama G. who endorsed her, Sarah Palin.

Not every campaign ad needs to be funny, but as Davis has demonstrated, a little absurdity can help a candidate stick in the voter’s brain, if not win a race.

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at



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