What is the line between offensive and effective? In modern American politics, that line has been replaced with an equals sign. One of the most effective ways to get your name and your message into the national political conversation is to create a campaign ad that laughs (or spits, even) in the face of political correctness. Sure, you'll offend a few million people, but that's sort of the point.
The controversial "Willie Horton" attack ad against Michael Dukakis only aired once back in 1988, but it struck such a nerve that the news broadcasts replayed it again and again. With YouTube, an offensive ad can go viral overnight, turning a fringe local politician into a national political celebrity.
For your shock and awe, we have assembled a list of the five most offensive political ads ever conceived, starting with an unforgettable attack that aired on Michigan TV during Super Bowl 2012.
"Debbie Spend It Now" (2012)
It takes a particularly offensive ad to outshine the onslaught of flatulent animals and cleavage-based commercials on Super Bowl Sunday. But that's exactly what Republican Senate hopeful Pete Hoekstra managed to do when he ran a blatantly racist Super Bowl ad attacking his Democratic rival, Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow.
The ad features a young Asian woman riding a bicycle next to some rice paddies. In broken English, she thanks Debbie "Spend it now" for spending so much money that the U.S. federal government has to borrow heavily from China. "Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs," says the young woman. "Thank you Debbie 'Spend it now!'"
The ad was immediately condemned by Asian-American political figures and a group representing Asian and Pacific Islander voters in Hoekstra's home state of Michigan. For his part, Hoekstra refused to back down, accusing Democrats of playing the "race card" whenever they lack a real argument. "It's a very straightforward message," Hoekstra said. "There's nothing racist in this ad. This is all about holding Debbie accountable for her reckless spending" [source: Bingham].
"We Speak English" (2010)
When Republican Tim James campaigned for governor of Alabama in 2010, he didn't shy away from the hot-button issue of immigration. But instead of proposing greater police authority to arrest suspected illegal immigrants like Arizona Governor Jan Brewer -- a controversial move in its own right -- he called out the state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) for issuing the driver's license exam in 12 different languages.
"This is Alabama," James says in his now infamous 2010 TV ad. "We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it." James' comments echo a larger "English-only" movement that persists in the more conservative outposts of the Republican party. The ad was widely condemned as xenophobic or worse, but James defended his English-only DMV proposal as a matter of highway safety.
"Political correctness may endear you to the Rachel Maddow crowd, but here in Alabama, the safety of our people comes first," James wrote in a statement to the press [source: Condon]. His campaign staff cited a 2004 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report that faulted non-English-speaking drivers for a rise in work-related traffic fatalities. In fact, the BLS report makes no mention of non-English-speaking drivers, since the BLS doesn't track that data [source: Farley]. James finished third in the state Republican gubernatorial primary that year.
"Willie Horton" (1988)
It was a mug shot only a mother could love. William Horton, convicted murderer, staring down the camera in grainy black-and-white. With his wild Afro and scruffy facial hair, Horton seems to epitomize the racist stereotype of the black man as violent criminal. Maybe (just maybe) that's why conservative media strategist Floyd Brown chose Horton's mug shot as the central image in his infamous 1988 attack ad against Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.
In the ad, William is renamed "Willie" for an added measure of menace. To prove that Dukakis is soft on crime, the ad rails against the Massachussetts governor for his state's prison furlough program, which allows convicted felons -- even those serving life sentences -- to earn weekend "get out of jail free" cards.
In gruesome detail, the ad explains how Horton, who was serving a life sentence for the stabbing death of a boy, used his free weekend pass to break into a suburban couple's home bind and stab and the man, and rape his girlfriend. The grim story is punctuated with three words on the screen: "Kidnapping. Stabbing. Raping." Then comes the dark punchline: "Weekend Prison Passes. Dukakis on Crime."
Don't blame George H.W. Bush for the ad, which was paid for by an independent political action committee and conceived by Floyd Brown. But you can hardly hold Bush blameless for the aftermath. Even though the ad only aired once, Bush picked up the theme in his campaign stump speeches, labeling Dukakis "a tax-raising liberal who let murderers out of jail" [source: Schwartz].
Rick Perry's presidential campaign may have been short-lived, but it was packed with enough embarrassing gaffes and political missteps to last a lifetime. The Texas governor's most famous flub came during a televised Republican primary debate on November 9, 2011, when the small government advocate couldn't remember the name of the third federal agency that he would scrap if elected president. He floundered on air for a full 45 seconds before giving up [source: Yadron]. "Oops," was all he could say.
But Perry had plenty to say a month later when he released an ad that cemented his status as a hopeless presidential hopeful. "I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian," Perry says in the ad. "But you don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school."
Never mind the fact that no one is stopping kids from openly celebrating Christmas or praying in school (school officials and teachers aren't allowed to lead students in prayer -- and certainly can't coerce or force them -- but students are free to pray on their own or form student prayer groups) [source: Sullivan]. What really offended people was his "strong" position against openly gay servicemen and women. Internet commentators were quick to point out that Perry's manly leather jacket in the commercial is an exact replica of the one worn by one of the cowboy lovers in the 2005 film "Brokeback Mountain."
"Give Us Your Cash, @#$%!" (2011)
There are offensive political ads, and then there are ads that defy logical explanation for their very existence. The attack ad created by the independent Super PAC Turn Right USA against California Democratic congressional candidate Janice Hahn easily wins the title of the most offensive political ad ever conceived.
The ad lambasts Hahn for using taxpayer money to pay former gang members to serve as gang intervention specialists. The ad alleges that Hahn even negotiated for some of the former gang members to be released early from prison to do their government-sponsored work. Keep in mind, these accusations are made over a cheesy cutout of Hahn's floating head and captions in a blood-splattered font. But that's child's play compared to what comes next.
Let's see. How do we explain this without forfeiting our PG rating? In essence, the ad becomes a rap video, or at least what the director of the commercial, Ladd Ehlinger, Jr., thinks is a rap video. The protagonist of the video is a stripper, meant to represent Hahn. Two black rappers, doubling as ex-gang bangers, dance around the stripper's gyrating posterior yelling, "Give me your cash, (b-word)!" Insane offensiveness aside, why are the gangbangers asking for money from "stripper" Hahn, when a stripper is typically the one receiving money from her customers?
Again, logic has nothing on this commercial, which was denounced by representatives of both political parties, including Craig Huey, Hahn's Republican opponent, whose campaign manager called the spot "completely offensive," adding "I wish that it had never been made" [source: Marinucci]. That makes two of us, pal.
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Author's Note: 5 Most Offensive Campaign Ads Ever Produced
As I watched clip after clip of absurd political ads from both parties, I thought of the famous quote from H.L. Mencken: "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public." Offensive and over-the-top political ads are effective because they play to our basest nature -- our stereotypes, our fears, our distrust of the political "enemy." The only way we can slow the steady decline of our political discourse is to vote for folks who try to take the high road, or at least the higher road than their opponent. Good luck finding them!
- Bingham, Amy. ABC News. "Senate Candidate Pete Hoekstra Under Fire for Racially 'Offensive,' 'Atrocious' Super Bowl Ad." February 6, 2012 (June 10, 2012.) http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/02/senate-candidate-under-fire-for-very-disturbing-super-bowl-ad/
- Condon, Stephanie. CBS News. "Alabama Gov. Candidate Tim James: 'We Speak English. If You Want to Live Here, Learn It." April 27, 2010 (June 10, 2012.) http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20003524-503544.html
- Farley, Robert. Politifact. "Alabama's Time James says government report backs up his claim that non-English speaking drivers are a public safety hazard." April 29, 2010 (June 10, 2012.) http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2010/apr/29/tim-james/alabamas-tim-james-says-government-report-backs-hi/
- Marinucci, Carla. San Francisco Chronicle. "A new low in political TV spots: attack ad shows CD-36 candidate Janice Hahn as stripper." June 15, 2011 (June 10, 2012.) http://blog.sfgate.com/nov05election/2011/06/15/a-new-low-in-political-tv-spots-attack-ad-shows-cd-36-candidate-janice-hahn-as-stripper-video/
- Schwartz, David. Museum of the Moving Image. "Revolving Door" (June 10, 2012.) http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1988
- Sullivan, Amy. TIME. "Why Rick Perry's Ads are Wrong on Religion — And Obama." December 9, 2011 (June 10, 2012.) http://swampland.time.com/2011/12/09/why-rick-perrys-new-ads-are-wrong-on-religion-and-obama/#ixzz1wYWP78aR
- Yadron, Danny. The Wall Street Journal. "Perry's Key Moment in Debate: a Memory Lapse." November 10, 2011 (June 10, 2012.) http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203537304577028940895320320.html