A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

2008 FactCheck Awards

Roll out the red carpet! We bring you some noteworthy ads of the 2008 election season.


Politics is bizarre. Nobody knows that better than we do. But sometimes the real twisted weirdness is subtle and complicated, taking days of research and interviews to tease out – and other times it’s right on the surface, in the form of a hippie in a suit and tie or a close-up shot of dog feces. For those readers who’ve stuck with us through a lot of in-depth reporting on complex issues, we offer these just-for-fun awards for some of the most entertaining, most egregious, most off-the-wall or just plain grossest ads this election cycle.


Best Actor

Winner: Chuck Norris

Our FactCheck Wire may be faster than the speed of spin, but it’s not faster than a roundhouse kick to the face from Chuck Norris. And while election ads may have come fast and furious, none delivered the same punch as those starring Chuck Norris. During the Republican primaries, Gov. Mike Huckabee and Norris provided an instant classic with the duo plugging each other’s resumes. Huckabee lifted gems from the venerable Chuck Norris Facts Web site, such as: “There is no chin behind Chuck Norris’ beard. There is only another fist.” Norris recited Huckabee talking points about being a conservative and gun enthusiast.

And as a late election season surprise, Norris put in a new starring role in a National Rifle Association ad advocating for gun rights. We found fault with earlier NRA pieces, but we’re not quibbling this time. Whatever you say, Mr. Norris.

Best Actress

Winner: Paris Hilton

The errant heiress made a surprising number of appearances in campaign ads this season. First, there was John McCain’s well-known “Celebrity” ad, which likened Obama to Hilton and Britney Spears. That prompted this announcement of candidacy from Hilton, and another spot in which she seeks fake presidential advice from consummate fake president Martin Sheen – both of which are funnier than most real ads we’ve seen. Then in September, Hilton reappeared in an ad for Nick Leibham, running to represent California’s 50th congressional district. “What do Paris Hilton and [opponent] Brian Bilbray have in common?” the ad asks. “Well, they both do nothing.” Aw, lay off, Nick. Paris only found out she was running a few months ago she hasn’t had time to be an agent of change.

Least Convincing Hippie

Winner: Freedom’s Watch

The freewheeling soul introducing us to the “Department of Peace” in this ad from Freedom’s Watch hasn’t been spending much time in his suspiciously smoky van – he’s not even relaxed enough to take off his blazer and tie. We suspect that ponytail’s really a wig, too. Groovy!

Rep. Mark Udall, who is running for Senate in Colorado, did support a 2003 bill establishing a Cabinet-level Department of Peace, proposed by Rep. Dennis Kucinich. In fact, he cosponsored the bill at one time, though he withdrew that support in March 2003. The department was described as focusing on disarmament, human rights, nonviolent conflict resolution strategies, and education on communication and peaceful intervention. Crystals and transcendental meditation were not mentioned.

Your 2:51 of Zen

Winner: Mike Gravel

If you can’t make it through this ad (or whatever it is), we’ll sum it up for you: From 0:00 to 1:10, Mike Gravel stands on a lake shore and stares into the camera. At 1:11 he turns around. At 1:21 he picks up a rock, and at 1:26 he heaves it into the lake. Then he walks away. For another minute and 25 seconds.

To get the full effect, you must stare deeply into Mike Gravel’s eyes for at least the first minute. At that point you will either achieve enlightenment or start channeling Gravel’s support for the FairTax.

Brobdingnagian Nightmare Award

Winner: Jim Slattery

Whiz kid Jim Slattery is running for Senate in Kansas, where he is looking out for number one with this ad condemning opponent Pat Roberts for failing to protect constituents from high gasoline prices. If you happen to like video of besuited man-mountains unleashing suspicious yellow liquid on tiny voters, well, you’re in luck. It’s enough to make you flush with embarrassment. But at the end, it turns out just to be gasoline. Aren’t you relieved?

The ad could use a wee bit more context, though. When Slattery says that Roberts “voted to repeal laws that have protected Kansans since the Great Depression,” he’s referring to Roberts’ vote in favor of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which allowed mergers between commercial banks, investment banks and insurance companies. The act has taken some heat for the current financial crisis, but as we’ve written, that stale claim is not really justified. And implying that it’s to blame for high gas prices is just drippy.

The Prurient Puritan Award

Winner: Rep. Sam Graves

Rep. Sam Graves, running for reelection in Missouri’s 6th district, ran an ad showcasing his opponent’s “San Francisco values.” The ad says that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is “throwing a party for Kay Barnes, a ritzy California fundraiser celebrating Barnes’ San Francisco-style values.” It goes on to show a dramatic reenactment of the party – two girls and a dude in a cowboy hat bopping to disco – while listing these values: same-sex marriage, abortion on demand, amnesty for illegal immigrants.

We’re frankly baffled by what these three party-goers are supposed to represent. Are the dancers somehow symbolic, like the Three Graces, or the Three Fates: The Three Liberal Values of Abortion, Same-Sex Marriage and Amnesty? Is the guy in the cowboy hat supposed to be an illegal immigrant? Or a gay guy? Are the ladies together? What’s with the blonde girl’s hair? Why are there only three people at this party? Our best guess is that this is just a culturally conservative Missourian’s idea of a debauched California affair. It brings to mind H.L. Mencken’s famous definition of Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Weirdest Use of Stock Footage

Winner: 2020 Action Fund

This independent ad criticizing Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma looks like a 1940s newsreel directed by surrealist French filmmaker Michel Gondry. The “2020 Action Fund,” a group with ties to the biofuel industry, goes after politicians they deem environmentally irresponsible. But you’d never know that from the ad, which metaphorically depicts Inhofe as kicking his prostrate constituents with votes on the minimum wage, domestic jobs, congressional salary increases and corporate tax breaks, as well as on alternative energy and oil. (The dizzying visual rhetoric also seems to be saying something critical about globes, hourglasses, dollar signs, the eating of shiny food and some guy in a robe taking a bow, but we’re not sure exactly what.)

If viewers aren’t reeling from the stock footage onslaught, they may notice that the ad exaggerates Inhofe’s culpability in the current state of government and finance. For instance, the ad tries to pin a $2 trillion loss to retirement plans on Inhofe, as though he were somehow personally responsible for the plunge in the stock market.

Ickiest in Show
Winner: Diane Benson

The shots of  Diane Benson’s frolicking dogs in this ad were supposed to convince Alaska Democrats to vote for her in the primary election for the state’s one and only U.S. House seat, now held by Republican Don Young. Sounds like a brilliant political strategy – everyone loves puppies, right?

Of course, this particular video doesn’t stop at Cute Overload-style shenanigans. It also includes a dramatic closeup of dog poop as Benson scoops it up and disposes of it. The word “Experience” appears on screen. We’re pretty sure this is meant as some kind of “clean government” metaphor, though there’s no narration to explain how cleaning up after canines translates into cleaning up Washington. In any case, it’s still icky. And it didn’t work. Benson lost the primary with 38 percent of the vote.

Best Music Reference Mash-Up

Winner: Rep. John W. Olver

John Olver’s not really appealing to the youth vote here, but we applaud his remix of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” – with a bonus reference to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”! (Honk honk! Who’s that? Could it be that smoke-filled Department of Peace bus?) Rep. Olver, a Democrat who represents Massachusetts’ 1st congressional district, is 72 but clearly still rockin’.

Our recommendation to Olver if he wants to pick up the young voters at western Mass. colleges: Learn to play one real chord on that guitar. Just one.

Least Prescient Precognition
Winner: Sen. Norm Coleman

Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican incumbent running for reelection in Minnesota, wants you to know that “the other side” is going to dig up unflattering photos, accuse him of being in the pocket of oil lobbyists, and fabricate paparazzi shots of him with George W. Bush.

It’s a funny ad, and it seems pretty sharp of Norm to head them off at the pass. Except that he started airing this ad on Sept. 12, at which point opponent Al Franken and independent groups had already put out six ads attacking Coleman on oil connections and seven that decried his support of President Bush. If only Coleman had thought to head them off before they got to the pass.

There’s Life in the Old Duck Yet Award
Winner: George W. Bush

Bush is on his way out of office no matter who wins. But that didn’t stop him from building on the “Busiest Supporting Actor” award we gave him in 2006 for appearing in 186 ads for Democratic House and Senate candidates. This year, G. Dub’s image graced at least 150 Democratic ads, short of his total from the last election cycle but still an impressive haul for a lame duck. Bush’s visage popped up in five Republican ads too, but the association wasn’t always positive. Erik Paulsen, running for the House in Minnesota’s 3rd, accused his opponent of voting for Bush and covering it up. And Jim Inhofe made Bush the face of the Wall Street bailout, which Inhofe doesn’t support.


Best Political Pick-Up Line
Winner: “Vote No on Prop 8”

This knock-off of a “Mac vs. PC” spot features a pretty girl representing the California Constitution being propositioned (get it?) by a boorish ballot initiative. It’s no John Hodgman/Justin Long/Gisele Bundchen get-together, but that doesn’t make the idea any less funny.

Proposition 8 would amend the state Constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage, which the state Supreme Court ruled in May to be legal statewide. The No On Prop 8 ad campaign has snagged big names like Ellen DeGeneres, Tim Gunn and Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.). But, from where we sit, no celebrity endorsement beats this low-budget ode to the Apple ad. According to a press release from No On Prop 8, the organization has paid to air the ad in California, even though it was originally created for YouTube by supporters who worked independently of the group.

Apple separately came out against Prop 8 and has donated money to groups opposing it. Seattle-based Microsoft doesn’t have a dog in this fight, which might explain why we have yet to see any ads in which Deepak Chopra declares, “I’m yes on 8!” before hopping into a shark cage with an astronaut.

(Important side note: However you may feel about Prop 8, the ad’s accurate about one thing: This is not the way to pick up women. Trust us on this one.)

Least Contagious Viral Campaign
Winner: Ralph Nader

These days many of the most memorable political videos skip the expensive TV medium and go straight to the Web. Professionals and amateur enthusiasts alike can escape the narrow strictures of the 30-second ad format and are limited only by the length of their viewers’ attention spans. If you’re funny or arresting enough, you can net hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of viewers basically for free.

This has led to some transcendent moments of home-grown pop-cultural brilliance, like the above-mentioned Prop 8 ad or the “Wassuuuuuuup?” guys’ reunion. But it also allowed independent candidate Ralph Nader to spend almost three minutes soliloquizing gloomily to Cardozo the parrot about the lack of attention being paid to his latest run for president. At one point Nader wonders whether he should dress up in a panda suit. Maybe that would have worked better. This video logged fewer than 120,000 views on YouTube before Election Day. Ralph should have picked a parrot with bird flu – it might have spread more quickly than this attempt at viral marketing, and been less deadly.

Correction: We originally said Ralph Nader was running as the candidate of the Green Party. That was true in 1996 and 2000, but in 2008 Nader and his running mate, Matt Gonzalez, were on the ballot as independents, or in some states as the candidates of minor political parties such as California’s Peace and Freedom Party.

by Jess Henig, with Justin Bank, Emi Kolawole and the FactCheck.org Awards Committee