A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House

Candidates Turn to Humor Instead of Attack Ads -- for Now

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- Jon Stewart, eat your heart out.

If you've noticed a scarcity of attack ads so far in the 2008 run for the White House, it's not your imagination. This election cycle is seeing the debut of something rare in presidential campaigning, a tactic typically employed by underdog candidates in less-important races: humor.
Hillary Clinton as comedienne
Photo illustration: John Kuczala

The professional scolds need not worry -- they'll surely get their chance to lament the level of negative advertising when the races heat up, but for now many of the candidates are mixing up the standard "Where I Stand" ads with comic fare. The nation's grown accustomed to online spoofs, but these efforts come from the campaigns themselves. In web videos and in paid ads, candidates are using humor to gain attention, soften their image, ease gaffes or as a point of difference against bigger rivals.

While some of their efforts have drawn significant attention -- Sen. Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, were pictured on the Clinton campaign's website in a parody of the final scene in HBO's "The Sopranos" -- other examples this year have been somewhat overlooked.

Nudging ribcages
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's campaign launched its Iowa and New Hampshire efforts with spots from Murphy Putnam Media, Alexandria, Va., featuring a supposed job interview. In one spot -- the campaign has run three and previewed a fourth on the CNN/YouTube debate last week -- Gov. Richardson tells the interviewer about his work as governor to combat global warming by providing tax credits for wind, solar and bio fuels. "President Bush doesn't follow the Kyoto treaty, but my state does. I can do that as president." Responds the interviewer: "But what I asked you was, 'If you were a tree, what kind of a tree would you be?'"

John Edwards, meanwhile, has used a web video to try to poke fun at stories about his $400 haircut while drawing attention back to other issues in the race. The "What Really Matters" video features the song "Hair" but images of Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, Hurricane Katrina, President Bush in front of the "Mission Accomplished" banner and explosions in Iraq. OK, so it is an attack ad of sorts -- but it still strives to be funny by being self-deprecating.
To watch candidates being -- er, trying to be funny, check out these links from:

And while he doesn't boast the funniest "ha-ha" ads, Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel certainly has the funniest weird ads. The ads -- which almost qualify as short movies -- have no narrator and feature Mr. Gravel out in the elements. In one, Mr. Gravel, standing on the side of a lake, stares into the camera for minutes, saying nothing. Then he walks away, picks up a stone and tosses it into the lake.

Still the folks at Comedy Central aren't about to be replaced by the candidates anytime soon. Fred Davis, a Los Angeles Republican consultant who has used humor in several gubernatorial and senatorial efforts, said there is a danger to using humor in a presidential race

Not 'presidential'
"The problem with making major waves on the web is the same problem of using broad humor in a presidential campaign: neither is perceived as 'presidential' yet," he said.

But the new tactic is getting far more use this year than in past presidential races. Humor is becoming more common in legislative and gubernatorial campaign ads, but it's still rare for it to be a major part of campaign advertising, even as politicians bolster their use of humor in speeches and in appearances on talk shows. Much of it apparently reflects the dynamics of this year's race, including the large number of candidates and the early start. Candidates appear to be reluctant to start negative attacks against rivals too early.

And some of them just want to prove they're not killjoys. Phil Singer, a Clinton campaign spokesman, said the "Sopranos" parody and an earlier effort in Ms. Clinton's search for a campaign song present a broader image of the candidate than shows up day-to-day in the media. "The media often doesn't present all sides, and in these videos, people get to see a different side of her," he said.
Bill Richardson's strategists say the funny ads fit the New Mexico governor's personality and serve as an introduction that can be followed up with conventional ads.
Bill Richardson's strategists say the funny ads fit the New Mexico governor's personality and serve as an introduction that can be followed up with conventional ads.

Bill Hillsman, president-CEO of North Woods Advertising, may have kicked off the humor trend in 1990 with his successful tongue-in-cheek ads for the senatorial campaign of the late Paul Wellstone in Minnesota. He said the tactic isn't right for all campaigns but can be used to raise visibility, inoculate a candidate against expected negative ads, ease the impact of a gaffe or soften a candidate's image.

He pointed to a fake negative ad he did for Democrat Ned Lamont's Connecticut primary campaign against Sen. Joe Lieberman last year as an example of inoculation. In the ad, Mr. Lamont was attacked for making bad coffee and having a messy desk. "It creates talk value and extends value of your media buy," he said.

Showing, not telling
Steve McMahon, a Democratic media consultant, said Mr. Richardson's global-warming ads work because the humor helps show his experience with the issue. "Hillary's parody makes the more subtle point that she actually has a sense of humor," he said.

"It's a perfect vehicle for the making the point that the Washington elite may not be taking Bill Richardson seriously, but you should," said Steve Murphy, one of Mr. Richardson's media strategists.

He said the ads -- complete with the candidate's raised eyebrows -- fit Mr. Richardson's personality and provide a memorable introduction that can be followed up with more conventional ads, as the campaign has done. While the YouTube viral viewing has been a bonus, he said, the ads were aimed at TV viewers.

Standing out
"With the onslaught of advertising that voters in early states are about to experience, we wanted to do something distinctive," he said. "Voters love these ads. Gov. Richardson hears all about it all the time during his stump speeches."

Campaign spokesman Pahl Shipley said the ads play on Mr. Richardson's underdog status. "We understand that we are an insurgent candidate and had to do something to stand out from the white noise of political advertising. It was a way to stand out, to stand apart but with a serious message of: Give him a look before you make up your mind."
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