It's not easy being Green, but Nader's ad is a winner

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Well, listen: Ralph Nader isn't going to be president. He probably won't even be much of a spoiler. So there's no reason to pay any attention to his campaign spot, which is backed by about $16 of spending.

Except that he's determined, and he's rising in the polls, and he is Ralph Nader. Bigger forces than Ad Review have made the mistake of underestimating him.

We're thinking, for example, of the General Motors Corp.

You know, the one that tried to smear him back in the early '60s when he questioned the safety of the Corvair and wound up paying millions in court damages, that would fund Nader's Raiders for decades? That General Motors.

Nader isn't merely a quixotic gadfly. He isn't just the synthesis of Bartleby the Scrivener and a chigger (gets under your skin and won't go away.) Beginning with "Unsafe at Any Speed," with which David felled Goliath, he has practically invented modern consumerism and public interest law. In so doing, he has fundamentally altered the relationship between American citizens and their government.

Who else since the framers, excepting Martin Luther King, could ever make that claim?

Oh, he's a little peculiar. The Ad Review staff once watched in astonishment as he ordered three luncheon side dishes to save $1.50 over the veggie platter entree, then boasted about his coup with an open mouthful of cottage cheese. He leads a monkish, ascetic life, and he always looks as if he's slept in the hamper. But he is certainly the rare presidential candidate who genuinely stands for what he proclaims to stand for (including his absurdly protectionist stance on trade), immune to any polls or focus groups or the blandishments of political-consultancy sleazebags.

He is, in fact, the Anti-Sleazebag, and has been for 35 years.

Of course, as we have just spent eight years observing, where the presidency is concerned, sleaziness is not necessarily a disqualifying factor, nor even a major hindrance. And it's difficult to imagine how Nader's experience irritating multinational corporations will serve him in facing down, say, Saddam Hussein, or Slobodan Milosevic, or -- God forbid -- Vladimir Putin. When the armored divisions mass on the border, what's Nader going to do -- sue them?

Yet here he is, undertaking his biggest challenge yet: asking the American people, in effect, to send a recall notice to the Democratic and Republican parties. And his first TV spot, from the estimable North Woods Advertising, Minneapolis, is a wonderful beginning.

It's a parody of the MasterCard campaign, with images of product consumption replaced by shots of the big-party nominees on the fund-raising trail.

"Grilled tenderloin for fund-raiser," the voice-over says, to images of George W. Bush meetin' 'n' greetin', "$1,000 a plate."

"Campaign ads filled with half-truths: $10 million."

"Promises to special interest groups: over $10 billion."

Then, after watching Gore and Bush cultivating the unholy alliance between money and politics, we see Nader in his office, surrounded by Rolodexes and shelves full of his trademark manila file folders, looking for answers.

"Finding out the truth," the voice-over says. "Priceless." Then comes a montage of 35 years of Nader news clips and the final, MasterCard-esque pitch: "There are some things money can't buy. Without Ralph Nader in the presidential debates, truth will come in last. Find out how you can help.

"Go to VoteNader.com."

It's a no-chance effort, but it's a very good one.

The agency -- which created brilliant and successful campaigns for liberal Democratic senators Paul Wellstone and Russ Feingold, and a less brilliant but equally successful one for Minnesota's loudmouth Reform Party Gov. Jesse Ventura -- has demonstrated once again that political advertising can build the "brand," criticize the competition and define the issues all at once without resorting to the lies, distortions and character assassinations that desecrate most campaigns.

So here's to the loser. He has correctly divined that Big Politics is all about money.

And he doesn't have any.

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