Pig Castration Might Make Media Squeal, but What About Voters?

Weird Creative Can Get You a Million Views -- and a Concession Speech on Election Night

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Political advertising can teach us many things about marketing, whether it be the need for boots on the ground, the impact of direct mail, the power of big data, why TV still matters.

Or how cutting through the clutter with a viral hit that gets you millions of free media impressions can be a completely useless thing.

You may have heard of Joni Ernst. She's a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Iowa. She hasn't even made it through the primaries yet, but she's bubbled up into national news coverage twice. Not because of her policy ideas, not because she's won the endorsement of Sarah Palin, but rather because of her advertising.

"Squeal," which broke in March, put her on the map with its opening line. "I'm Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington, I'll know how to cut pork."

That's a hell of a first impression. The last line, delivered after some visuals of smiling Joni intercut with some piglets: "Let's make them squeal." Ouch!

"Shot," which broke last week, features leather-jacket wearing Joni pulling up to the gun range on her Harley, where she unloads on targets -- just like she'll do with Obamacare, etc.

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Political media adores ads like these because, let's face it, political advertising is often awful, boring or both. So when someone sets off a firecracker in the lecture hall, everyone goes nuts.

Virality and engagement, however, are too often celebrated out of context -- as if they are the entire point of advertising, rather than, you know, selling things. If that sounds like "any publicity is good publicity," that's because it's the same old snake oil -- it's just got a new label.

And the context of super- buzzy creativity in political advertising -- especially of the weird sort -- is that it's usually a sign of desperation. See also: former CEO of H-P Carly Fiorina's "Demon Sheep" in California and candidate Christine O'Donnell's "I Am Not a Witch" in Delaware, both in 2010, both for Senate runs, both from media consultant Fred Davis. In each case, high-profile but poorly performing candidates launched a Hail Mary. As with most last-ditch heaves, everyone got really, really excited for a split second—and the play failed.

Joni Ernst's case is a little different. She's trying to cut through the clutter of a crowded Republican primary. And as far as outlandish political ads go, these aren't that crazy. In fact, they show a smiling, sane-looking woman who's got military experience and a political track record addressing a few of the top-line concerns of Republican voters. The copywriting and visuals just tend to be sharper than usual for political advertising -- and dealing with the sort of subject matter completely alien to East Coast media establishment. "PIG CASTRATION!?! Why, whoever heard of such a thing?" Voters in Iowa have, so they'll likely be making their decisions on a host of factors other than these ads.

Still, there's no denying the ads succeeded in generating buzz.

So congratulations to Joni Ernst for breaking through. Now what are you going to do with that attention?

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