Political Meatballs

In the world of political campaign advertising, there is nothing sweeter than coming up with an ad that is so clever or outrageous it gets free publicity. Ralph Nader hit the jackpot in the fall campaign with his spot that parodied MasterCard's "priceless" commercial. Nader's campaign even ended up getting sued by the credit card company (a federal judge refused to order the ad off the air, it turned out).

When wit isn't an option, though, the reliable approach is to see how low you can go. A tiny conservative group in Texas made national news in October with a remake of the famous 1964 anti-Goldwater "daisy ad," in which a girl pulls petals off a flower in a countdown to doomsday. In this case, the message was that Al Gore would blow up the earth by dealing in nuclear secrets with China.

The competition for the cheesiest and sleaziest ads of the season was intense. Two nominations:

First, "Meatball," by the Patrick Buchanan campaign. Buchanan used a good deal of his $12.6 million in federal funding on radio and television ads that unsubtly targeted immigrants. In one ad that ran in California and several other states, a man is eating spaghetti at his kitchen table when he hears a news bulletin that English will no longer be America's official language. His eyes bulge, his dog looks up in alarm, and the man begins to choke on a meatball. He reaches for the phone and dials 911. A recorded voice says, "For Spanish, press 1. For Korean, press 2. For Bengali, press 3... ." As the man keels over, an announcer asks, "Do you ever miss English?" The ad concludes, "Vote for the third party that puts America first."

Even lower was an ad calling into question the sexual orientation of New York Senate candidate Hillary Clinton. The Christian Action Network, a fringe group based in Virginia, held a press conference in early September to call attention to its spot, which was so crude that most New York television stations refused to run it. Here's the text: "It is rumored that Hillary Clinton is a lesbian. It is rumored that Hillary Clinton supports homosexual marriage. It is rumored that Hillary Clinton will leave her husband upon taking office. It was rumored that Bill Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky. Sometimes rumors are true. Shouldn't you know the truth? For more information on traditional family values, please contact the Christian Action Network."

At least one television station in New York was happy to take the money and run the ad. WLOT-66, a UPN affiliate in Watertown, New York, aired it for five days at the end of October. "We're broadcasters, not censors," explained Anthony DiMarcantonio, president and general manager of the station. "It's our duty to run things like this."