Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Politically Incorrect

Oh, hello. By the way, I understand that your father beats his mistress, praises rapists and writes obscene books while charging phone sex calls to taxpayers. And I almost forgot: He also tasers 7-year-olds and refuses to help deformed babies.

It’s no news that the TV spots for this week’s midterm election were more than 80 percent negative (each accusation in the paragraph above actually appeared in an ad, by the way), and that $2 billion was spent airing them. With power shifts in the House and Senate at stake, the attacks were so ratcheted up that they devolved into a sort of unintentional parody of pathetic, sleazy ads. If you actually took them seriously, it was like being a kid and listening to George and Martha go at each other in an alcoholic haze inWho’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (albeit with subliterate English and comically terrible production values).

Never mind what such an obscene amount of money could do for healthcare and education in this country or in the rest of the world. Perhaps the only good thing about this race to the bottom in political advertising (aside from filling local cable and TV station coffers) is that it makes the consumer ad industry look great by comparison. Ironically, 40 years ago, political pundits decried candidates who were “sold like soap.” These days, if only. It’s as if a detergent company was so threatened by a competitor that it made commercials filled with such disgusting images and accusations that it resulted in viewers never wanting to step foot in a supermarket again.

So why do they do it? Obviously, because they think it works, especially in hotly contested races. There’s so much at stake that both the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) have saved the most heinous (and dubious) ads for these last few weeks. In the past, perhaps some of these Willie Hortonesque ads did get true believers out to the polls. I think that mostly they end up motivating people to stay home out of disgust. But that’s also a result—it suppresses votes.

Our sad, chaotic times have spawned such desperation, of course. But that said, I’m hoping that with the need for leadership and integrity this year that some of the most offensive ads will indeed backfire.

Take the phone sex ad run last month by the NRCC accusing New York Democrat Michael Acuri of billing taxpayers for a call to a “fantasy hotline.” The badly Photoshopped ad shows the silhouette of a woman undulating while Acuri is shown leering like a doofus. But according to, “The phone records indeed show a call to the number of an adult fantasy talk service at 3:26 p.m. on Jan. 28, 2004, but at 3:27 p.m.—a minute later—the records show a second number was dialed. That number was identical to the sex line’s, except for the three-digit area code. The number his staff member meant to call and quickly did? That of the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services. That’s hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on an ad featuring a $1.25 misdial. And by the way, what do the kids watching think? (Many of these ads run all day.) I would imagine it raises the same kinds of excruciating questions around the dinner table that the Monica Lewinsky news flash did. (“Mommy, what’s a fantasy hotline?”)

Unfortunately, a much-talked-about attack ad in Tennessee, against Rep. Harold Ford (D), went in for the kind of sexual innuendo that should have been abolished by the Civil War. It actually raised the specter of miscegenation (now there’s an ugly old word), resurrecting the racist myth that black men prey on white women.

I’m not sure why they picked a woman who looks like a scantily clad Nancy Grace with a voice like Betty Boop for the part—maximum annoyance?—but early on in the spot she reminds us that she met Ford at a Playboy party. I realize that Republicans are the party of family values, but isn’t Playboy a kind of a geriatric, or at the very least, tame brand of sex? Ford is a bachelor and the ad referred to a post-Super Bowl party that something like 8,000 people attended. The nearly naked Nancy Grace-lookalike comes back at the end of the spot to say, “Harold, call me.” And then we get a super with the line “Just not right.” (A radio ad had tom-tom drums in the background every time Ford’s name was mentioned.)

By some bizarre new law, these ads are bankrolled by political parties who insist they have no control over them. So in this case, even the Republican candidate himself, Bob Corker, disavowed it. But the killer spots do their damage before getting pulled. This time, though, I believe that the Republicans of Tennessee will be turned off by such blatantly ugly tactics.

Which brings me to my “Have you no sense of decency?” epiphany, one that actually gives me hope. It was due to a backfire of another sort, when Rush Limbaugh accused Michael J. Fox of playing up his symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in a commercial he made for Claire McConnell. Until the ad appeared, I hadn’t seen one spot that focused on critical health issues. And out of the hundreds of ads running, there was nothing that could even come near it in terms of being so breakthrough, raw and powerful. Disease is a non-partisan issue, as Fox has been saying as he makes the media rounds in the post-Limbaugh hoopla. So maybe it took Limbaugh as a whipping boy to put this whole no-decency chapter in perspective–and close it.