In the Spotlight

News & Features
Ad Watch: The Value of Humor
By Laura McCallum
August 23, 2000
Part of MPR's Ad Watch Series
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

As more and more campaign ads fill the airwaves this election year, a couple of candidates are trying different approaches to cut through the clutter. A commercial created by Minneapolis adman Bill Hillsman for Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader parodies a popular MasterCard ad campaign, and Fourth District Congressional candidate Cathie Hartnett makes fun of herself in a series of humorous radio ads.

The Ads
Ralph Nader
Cathie Hartnett
THE RALPH NADER AD running nationally spoofs MasterCard's well-known "Priceless" ad campaign, which shows the costs of typical real-life situations, and ends with the tagline "There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard." The Nader ad shows clips of presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore glad-handing supporters, while the announcer lists some of the costs of presidential politics: $1,000-a-plate fundraisers and promises to special interest groups of more than $10 billion. The ad then shifts to grainy images of a young Ralph Nader pouring through documents.
Finding out the truth: priceless. There are some things money can't buy. Without Ralph Nader in the presidential debates the truth will come in last.
MasterCard wasn't pleased with the parody, and sued the Nader campaign, charging that the ad infringes upon the company's trademark and copyrighted ad campaign. Minneapolis adman Bill Hillsman, who also produced successful ad campaigns for Sen. Paul Wellstone and Gov. Jesse Ventura, considers the lawsuit corporate harassment designed to get an effective ad off the air. He says the ad is protected as political free speech, and it spoofs an ad campaign that has entered the popular culture because of its appeal.

"And I can't think of a better way to illustrate the problems with the political system right now," Hillsman said. "The ad is very effective; it's factual; if anything, we downplayed the numbers in that commercial. And it's the type of thing that just makes people angry when they see it. It tells the truth about what's going on."

Analyst Dean Alger, the Minnesota director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, says the ad appears to be accurate. He says he doesn't doubt that it downplays the dollar amounts, particularly when it lists the cost of "campaign ads filled with half-truths" at $10 million.

"The best estimates are that we will have at least $600 million in campaign ads showing on the networks and the local TV stations this year. If only $10 million of those are filled with half-truths, that's probably the best news we've heard in a long time," Alger said.

Alger says the MasterCard lawsuit just gives the Nader campaign more publicity. He says the Nader ad is typical of Hillsman's style - it's creative, fast-paced and carries a punch. Hillsman believes that political ads are competing for viewers' attention along with ads for soft drinks and other products, so they need to be different enough to grab people. DFL'er Cathie Hartnett agrees. The Fouth District congressional candidate is running a series of radio ads that use humor to get people's attention. In all three, Hartnett constantly interrupts an announcer who's trying to do a traditional campaign ad, and in one called "Too Fat", Hartnett pokes fun at herself.
Announcer: In the fourth-district contest for Congress, one candidate stands out. But you won't be seeing her on television. Cathie Hartnett doesn't have the big-money backing that -
Hartnett: - Well, now, wait a minute! No, that's not it. I'm just too fat for television. I'm actually pretty good at raising money.
Hartnett says most candidates take themselves way too seriously. She says she hopes her ads make people laugh and get new voters to the polls in September. "Well, I think the other candidates are doing what Democrats do in every single primary. And what have we learned from that? We can turn out 20 percent of the vote, and people stand around and complain about the rhetoric," Hartnett said.

Analyst Alger agrees that an ad called "Too Fat" will certainly get people's attention, although he thinks it may be tough for drivers or distracted listeners to follow the rapid back-and-forth between Hartnett and the announcer.

"If she's trying to reach voters who usually don't vote, having a more complex campaign ad on radio may not be the best strategy. We will see," Alger said.

Hartnett is the first candidate in the competitive race for the open Fourth District seat to run ads, but some of her primary opponents aren't far behind. DFL'ers Betty McCollum and Steve Novak plan to run television ads the week before the primary.