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The worst political ads in America
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A scene from an Internet ad produced by the Arianna Huffington campaign during the 2003 California recall election. The ad, depicting her opponents as prostitutes in a brothel, is being named one of the worst political ads in America. (Iimage courtesy of Political Communication Lab, Stanford University)
Politicians are the celebrities Wednesdsay night at an Oscars-like awards ceremony for the "worst political ads in America." The event is a fundraiser for a new non-partisan policy organization called Growth and Justice.

Minneapolis, Minn. — When it comes to political ads, the "worst" can be outrageous; but also really powerful. Or tasteless.

Event organizer Lee Lynch describes a contender in the animation category. It's an Internet ad for Ariana Huffington, who ran in the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election.

"She's done some stuff called the 'California Brothel,' where she took President Bush, Vice President Cheney, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bustamante, and Gray Davis, and made them all hookers in a brothel with pasties and G-strings on," Lynch says. "Now this is funny, but at the same time, rather tasteless."

The ad goes like this:

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Image Lee Lynch

"How cute, there's easy Gray Davis cozying up with the prison guard union. 'Did you like that raise I gave you last time?' Oh look, there's Arnold "Peaches" Schwarzenegger, making a sweetheart deal with a big developer. 'Well, hello. Anything I can get you? Maybe a special contract or a loophole for the taxes?' Yeah it sure was a pretty corrupt place. A cat house for the fat cats," the ad said.

The showcase of political ads is a fundraiser for Growth and Justice, which Lynch calls a "non-partisan, progressive think tank."

"Growth and Justice is about civil discourse. And that's why we chose this least civil discourse to sort of contrast Growth and Justice's objectives," says Lynch, the chair of the organization's board.

Lynch, who's been a dominant figure in the advertising world for more than 40 years, says the "Worst Political Ads in America" event will feature local politicians presenting awards from nine categories, including the "cookie cutter" category.

"In the main, they're these people in Washington that make these commercials and then cookie-cutter them -- use the same claims against somebody all over the country," Lynch says. "You know, 'Raises taxes,' or 'He's a lawyer-politician,' or 'He flip flops,' 'He's two faced.' All those kinds of tricks, and so you'll see it over and over again."

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Image Dean Alger

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum will join Republican Sen. Steve Dille to award the worst ad in the "Use of an Animal" category.

DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza will present the "Putting Race in the Race" category, which includes that all-time greatest, or worst, of contemporary political ads, the Willie Horton commercial.

The 1988 ad created for the George H.W. Bush presidential campaign was instrumental in Democrat Michael Dukakis's slide from the race.

"His revolving-door prison policy gave weekend furloughs to first-degree murderers not eligible for parole. While out, many committed other crimes, like kidnapping and rape. And many are still at large. Now Michael Dukakis says he wants to do for America what he's done for Massachussetts. America can't afford that risk," the ad said.

While the Horton ad was widely discredited, public affairs consultant Dean Alger says it had its impact.

"That ad wound up setting the agenda for what people discussed. It was a very significant factor, many people cited it," Alger says.

Alger is the author of several books on politics and the media. He's organizing the "Oscars of bad ads" with Lee Lynch.

He says while the event is a fun look at some of the most uncivil distortions of political rhetoric, it's also a reminder that these ads can interfere with informed, legitimate debate.

"The media are the central mechanism for communication in democracy. In ancient Athens, that very stratified democracy, they had the agora, the public place. But the truth is, our public place is really the mass media," Alger says.

That's something for Minnesota voters to keep in mind. As one of about 18 battleground states, Minnesota will see a growing onslaught of ads from the Kerry and Bush campaigns, some of which may contend for "worst ad" in the future.

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