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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The 2012 FactCheck Awards

Our Election-Day sampler of funny, scary and just plain bizarre campaign ads.


It’s that special time of year again when campaigning is over (finally!) and the voting has begun. On Election Day we can stop being so serious about fact-checking false or deceptive claims and have some fun handing out imaginary hardware to those political ads that caught our eyes for other reasons.

We’ve mentioned before that the 2012 campaign has been nasty, brutish and long. But there have been moments that have been humorous, too — sometimes intentionally. And others that have been just strange or ridiculous.

We’ve seen a furry animal used for skeet-shooting, inappropriate public behavior involving electricity, a talking horse and at least two imitations of zombie movies (one of them intentional, one of them not). We’ve heard a pretty good country music song trying to sell a pretty bad claim about Medicare, and some clumsy attempts at humor that backfired, and more.

So, here, both for your amusement and our mental health, are our Election Day awards for 2012. Enjoy!


The Alex Forrest Award for Most Hare-Raising Ad
Winner: Cain Solutions

Anyone who has seen the 1987 thriller “Fatal Attraction” knows the horrible fate of the pet rabbit of Ellen Hamilton Latzen, who plays the young daughter of Michael Douglas and Anne Archer in the film. (Glenn Close, who plays Alex Forrest, is just not going to be ignored.) But we think that rabbit got off easy compared with our furry friend in this Web ad from Herman Cain’s group, Cain Solutions.

A young girl says, “This is small business,” referring to the adorable black-and-white rabbit that she is holding in her arms. She then says, “This is small business under the current tax code,” while loading the rabbit into a catapult. The rabbit — at this point animated, of course — is launched into the air and meets its end after a man blows it to bits with a shotgun. The young girl then asks, “Any questions?” Well, a few, but we’ll wait until the man puts the gun down.

The ad, harkening back to the “this is your brain on drugs” advertising campaign of the 1980s and 1990s, was a promotion for the website sickofstimulus.com, which Cain created after his run for the Republican presidential nomination ended. The poor goldfish featured in another stimulus-bashing ad from Cain’s group didn’t fare too well either. We understand that critics of the stimulus wanted to kill the bill’s pet projects — but isn’t this going too far? (See a parody of this ad on our sister site, FlackCheck.org.)


The Not Forever Young Award
Winner: Scott Howell, candidate for U.S. Senate in Utah

How’s this for a campaign slogan: “Vote for me because the other guy might die soon”? That’s pretty much the message that Scott Howell used in this fundraising email promoting his candidacy. The email warns voters of the danger of reelecting Utah’s longtime senator, Orrin Hatch.

“Look, Orrin Hatch is not a bad guy. But he is an old guy, and he’s a life politician,” the email reads. It continues: “It’s time to stand up and get me elected. We cannot risk the possibility of an 80-year-old man taking office, only to retire or die before his term is through.”

Hatch’s campaign manager called the email “offensive.” But Hatch took the high road, saying of Howell: “He’s a nice man, but he is doing whatever he can to get publicity.” How mature of him.

For the record, Hatch, who already has served six terms (36 years) in the Senate, is 78 years old. He’ll turn 79 in March. Howell, on the other hand, is currently 58 years old, though you wouldn’t know that based on some of his pictures. (We’re just sayin’.) But, hey, anything goes in politics when you trail your opponent by a wider margin than your age difference.


The Archie Bunker Award for Racial Insensitivity
Winner: Pete Hoekstra, candidate for U.S. Senate in Michigan

There must have been a better way for former Rep. Pete Hoekstra to make his point about the country’s current financial problems than this TV ad, which mocks Sen. Debbie Stabenow — or Debbie “Spend-it-now” as she’s referred to in the ad — for too much government spending. (Perhaps something along the lines of this ad from the Public Notice Research and Education Fund suggesting that politicians in Washington are like drug-addicted junkies? Or maybe not.)

Instead, Hoekstra went with this TV spot featuring a young Asian woman thanking Stabenow for contributing to China’s economic growth by spending so much American money and borrowing even more. But it’s how she does it — in broken English — that had us picking our jaws up off the floor.

“Thank you, Michigan Senator Debbie Spend-it-now,” the young woman starts. “Debbie spend so much American money, you borrow more and more from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs,” she continues. And, no, those aren’t typos. She thanks “Debbie Spend-it-now” one more time before Hoekstra takes the screen to give the ad his approval. Seriously.

The Hoekstra campaign reportedly tried to explain that the ad was an attempt at satire, and meant to show how competitive China’s education system has become. Uh, sure, if you say so.

But to make matters worse, the Hoekstra camp chose to debut the racially stereotypical ad in Michigan during the National Football League’s Super Bowl of all things, one of the most watched events in the U.S. each year.

The actress in the ad, 21-year-old Lisa Chan of San Francisco, issued a public apology. “I feel horrible about my participation, and I am determined to resolve my actions,” she said on her Facebook page. Hoekstra, on the other hand, said he wouldn’t be apologizing, saying, “The only stereotyping is of liberal Democrats and their spending policies.” Stabenow was holding on to a pretty comfortable lead heading into the homestretch of this Senate race.


The George A. Romero Zombie-Movie Award
Winner: John Dennis, candidate for U.S. House in California
Honorable Mention: Pat Boone, spokesman for ’60 Plus’

We’ve named this one for the director of the 1968 horror movie “Night of the Living Dead,” the original zombie movie, which has spawned far too many imitators, including a cable-TV series. Among the weirdest zombie knock-offs is this Web video produced by Republican John Dennis, who is running against Rep. Nancy Pelosi for a second time.

Dennis’ bizarre zombie ad was an attempt to get some free publicity. (As of Oct. 17, his campaign had raised just under $101,000 against the nearly $2.2 million raised by Pelosi, the former speaker of the House.) And the sacrificial lamb featured in the ad invites comparison to Dennis himself, who manged to get only 15 percent of the vote when he ran against Pelosi in 2010.

Dennis named his video “Night of the Living Pelosi,” and it’s an intentional homage to Romero’s original. Not so for our accidental mentionee, Pat Boone.

Blame it on bad makeup, bad lighting or too little sunblock — for whatever reason Boone ends up looking here less like the pop singer he was in the 1950s and ’60s and more like something that you might see Sunday nights on AMC.

Boone is the national spokesman for the conservative, Republican-leaning seniors group 60 Plus. In this 30-second spot he repeats the much-written-about GOP claim that the president “took $700 billion from Medicare to pay for his health care law.” We’re not even going there again. There’s no need. Who would believe a flesh-eating zombie?


Reddy Kilowatt Award for Most ‘Shocking’ TV Ad, Literally
Winner: Texas Railroad Commission Candidate Roland Sledge

How often do you see a campaign ad featuring a man urinating in public? Our point exactly.

Texas Railroad Commission candidate Roland Sledge broke the public urination taboo in a TV ad titled “Electric Fences.” Sledge starts off by quoting — erroneously as it turns out — one of the nation’s most beloved humorists: “Will Rogers said there’s three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few that learn by observation. And the rest have to pee on an electric fence.”

As he walks along an electric fence, Sledge chastises elected officials who are in it for “personal gain” and incapable of making “hard decisions.”

“I have the experience needed to bring Texas jobs,” he said, quickly pivoting to his left, where a young man is seen standing by a fence in a urinating position. Sparks soon fly.

(Oddly, the young man is wearing a dress suit as he relieves himself. Apparently, he isn’t even smart enough to know how to dress on a farm. But we digress.)

Without even breaking into a smile, Sledge says: “Isn’t it about time we elected political leaders that have sense enough not to pee on electric fences?” Apparently not. Sledge lost, finishing fifth out of six candidates with about 9 percent of the vote in the GOP primary.

Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, summed up Sledge’s short-lived political career even before it began when he made this comment to the New York Times when the ad first aired: “Sledge runs the risk that he goes from being a complete unknown to being known only as the guy with the strange pee ad.” (See a parody of this ad on our sister site, FlackCheck.org.)

Update, Nov. 8: This item has been updated to set the record straight about the quotation attributed to Will Rogers in the TV ad. We contacted Steve Gragert, director of the Will Rogers Memorial Museums in Oklahoma, to verify the quote. Gragert got back to us after we had published this article. He told us in an email that the quote is “not valid.” Gragert, who edited and published 19 volumes of the writings and papers of Rogers, said the quote “does not appear in our two-million-word database of Will Rogers’ published writings and radio broadcasts or in any other reliable source. Unfortunately, it does appear on the Internet as attributed to Rogers. The language in it, however, would not have been appropriate for Will to have used in his published writings and radio broadcasts.”

We found a sanitized version of the same quotation, also attributed to Rogers, that ends: “The rest of them have to touch an electric fence.” But Gragert said that quote, too, “is not found among his several thousand newspaper columns, magazine articles, and radio broadcasts. Our two-million-word database of his prolific output of words, written and broadcasted, does not include the quote as given or even segments thereof. [It] may be more appropriately worded for one created by Will, but it is still not valid.”


The Mr. Ed Award for Most Gratuitous Use of a Horse
Winner: MoveOn.org

Surprisingly, there were several contenders for this award.

First, there was the Democratic National Committee, which released not one but two videos poking fun at Ann Romney’s dressage horse, Rafalca. The videos featured Romney’s Olympic-bound horse in a dressage competition. They accused her husband of “dancing around the issues” on his tax returns (first ad) and the auto bailout (second).

After it was pointed out that Ann Romney got involved with horses as therapy for multiple sclerosis, the DNC apologized (sort of) when it said: “Our use of the Romneys’ dressage horse was not meant to offend Mrs. Romney in any way, and we regret it if it did.”

The DNC promised: “We have no plans to invoke the horse any further to avoid misinterpretation.” But, like Mr. Ed, the DNC could only speak for itself. (For non-Baby Boomers, Mr. Ed was a talking horse who spoke only to his owner, Wilbur.)

Two weeks after the DNC apologized, the liberal group MoveOn.org released a TV ad titled “Rafalca Romney” that featured a Rafalca lookalike speaking with a Boston Brahmin accent. With the harpsichord playing in the background, the rather refined Rafalca speaks of her “pampered” life and boasts that “the Romneys spend $77,000 a year on my upkeep” as the screen displays this text: “$77,000=Almost Twice the Average American’s income.” (For the record, MoveOn.org spent $35,000 on the ad and a total of $331,500 on ads attacking Romney — more than eight times the average American’s income.)

Lots of Democrats and their allies had fun at Rafalca’s expense. The horse even has her own Twitter account @RafalcaRomney, where she makes biting political commentary such as: “Nate Silver of @fivethirtyeight says I only have a 19% chance of becoming First Horse. WTF, America, I thought you wanted a FHOTUS.” (See a parody of this ad on our sister site, FlackCheck.org.)


The Jerry Seinfeld Close Talker Award for Most Uncomfortable Close-up
Winner: Rep. Ben Quayle of Arizona

We’ve heard that the direct approach works, but this TV ad from Rep. Ben Quayle seems like overkill. Quayle isn’t impressed with President Obama, and he tells us so here, up very close and personal.

Quayle, the son of former Vice President Dan Quayle, speaks in a soft, disconcerting voice and gets all up in our face as he slams Obama for the health care law and the stimulus, for peddling dependency in exchange for votes, and for promising unity but bringing division. Basically, the president has “failed the country” in Quayle’s view. “Two years ago, I called him the worst president in history,” Quayle says before adding, “I overestimated him.”

That’s a pretty bold statement that Quayle is making here, but were we the only ones distracted from it by his going all Norma Desmond on us? (“All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”)

Quayle starts close to the camera, but wait he gets even closer as he calls Obama “the worst president in history.” Perhaps Quayle isn’t a fan of “Seinfeld.” But there’s such a thing as personal space and this close talker violated it.

The ad flopped. For one thing, Quayle wasn’t running against Obama. He was running to hold onto his House seat, and he eventually lost in the GOP primary.


Most Misleading Radio Ad with Vocals
Winner: Rep. Shelley Berkley of Nevada

This 60-second jingle from Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley was so darn good that it almost made us overlook the fact that its main charge was completely false. The country-western-style ditty accuses Republican Sen. Dean Heller of voting to end the Medicare health insurance program on more than one occasion.

“Once is not enough to show how much you care/You went and voted two times to kill my Medicare,” a male vocalist croons. “Oh Dean Heller, that wasn’t very nice/I wish they’d let me vote against you twice,” he continues to sing. The rest of the song is pretty sweet, too.

The ad refers to votes Heller cast in favor of Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2011 budget proposal — first as a member of the House of Representatives, and again after he was appointed to fill the seat of the resigning Sen. John Ensign. But, as we’ve said numerous times, Ryan’s proposal would not have ended Medicare for anyone, though it would have changed the program significantly for future beneficiaries. But Berkley didn’t let that get in the way of a really catchy tune, which, admittedly, wouldn’t have worked quite as well had the word “essentially” been added in there.


Imperfect Product Pitchman of the Year
Winner: Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio

Sen. Sherrod Brown was likely never a consumer reporter before going off to Washington. Take this TV ad from the Brown campaign — touting the benefits of the government bailout to save the American auto industry — as an example of his skills, or lack thereof.

Just listen to Brown go on and on and on about this great-looking Chevy Cruze that was manufactured in his home state of Ohio. “The engine blocks made in Defiance. The aluminum wheels … Cleveland. The transmission from Toledo. And it was all assembled in Lordstown,” Brown states proudly.

We were sold at first blush. Cruzes for everyone! we thought. But upon further inspection, we discovered that weeks before the ad had aired, General Motors issued a recall of more than 400,000 Ohio-assembled Cruzes that had been sold in 2011 and 2012.

GM said that it was recalling the vehicles to fix a problem with the car’s engine shield to “prevent any liquids from being trapped in the engine compartment, where a fire could start and spread.” Come again? About 30 fires had been reported to federal safety officials prior to the recall, though no actual injuries were reported. Let’s just say that that bit of information gave us pause, and made us look at the fire-engine red Cruze that Brown was promoting in an entirely different way.


Least Convincing Door-to-Door Salesman
Winner: Wayne Powell, candidate for U.S. House in Virginia

Wayne Powell, a self-identified fiscally conservative Democrat, wants Republican voters in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District to know that he may be the representative for them, too. That’s been the theme of his advertising campaign this year, including this humorous TV ad demonstrating how difficult it can be for politicians to make inroads with faithful voters of another party. And when we say “difficult,” what we really mean is that they have a snowball’s chance in you know where.

Powell is seen outside the home of a Republican voter, explaining what he would do if elected to Congress. In this campaign cycle, that means promising to “stop that runaway spending that’s driving up our debt” and “fight big corporations that are sending our jobs overseas.” The man, having heard enough already, interrupts Powell’s spiel to say, “Wayne, you’re my kind of Republican.” But when Powell reveals his true political affiliation, the man slams the door in his face. The ad ends with a voice-over from the voter saying, “And I was just beginning to like him.” Partisan politics — you gotta love it.


The Abigael Evans Award
Winner: Citizens of Las Vegas

We’ve named this award for the 4-year-old girl from Fort Collins, Colo., who expressed the way many of us felt about this presidential campaign. She had a meltdown when listening to one too many reports on “Bronco Bama” and Mitt Romney while her mother was tuned to National Public Radio. The video made by her mother, Elizabeth, logged nearly 12 million views on YouTube in the week before Election Day.

We give the award to the citizens of Las Vegas, Nev. They were bombarded by more presidential campaign ads than the citizens of any other TV market in the nation, according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. As of shortly before Election Day, ads from presidential candidates, parties and independent groups had aired 55,398 times since April 10. That’s the day Romney effectively sewed up the nomination and the nearly seven-month general election grind commenced.

Runners-up were the citizens of Denver, who had 53,470 ads inflicted upon them, according to CMAG.

According to ABC News, Ohioans were subjected to more political ads than any other state in the union — more than 200,000 of them. But those were spread over several TV markets, so no single Ohio resident had it as bad as Las Vegans or Denverites.

In Abigael’s case, NPR apologized. We doubt that the candidates will apologize to residents of Las Vegas, though. So we hope this award is some consolation.

Update, Nov. 9: CMAG’s final count, issued after Election Day, was Las Vegas 56,616, Denver 55,396.



The Moment of Zen Award
Winner: Richard Tisei, candidate for U.S. House in Massachusetts

Call it a sensory oasis after a difficult trudge through a long and brutal 2012 campaign desert. There’s no mention of taxes, or Medicare or the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. In fact, there isn’t much of anything in this ad from Republican congressional candidate Richard Tisei save a postcard-perfect scene at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, Mass. For nearly 30 seconds, all we hear is the sound of waves lapping on the beach and gulls chirping. The ad ends with a woman saying, “Ahhhh, that was nice.” The only on-screen message: “… because you need a break from all the campaign ads.”

The ad is titled “Not Your Typical Ad, Not Your Typical Politician.” Check on both counts. Tisei is a socially moderate fiscal conservative who — if elected — would be the first House Republican from Massachusetts since 1996.

Has the barrage of campaign ads got you feeling punchy? Relax. Smell the salt air. Let the waves wash over you … 2016 is years away …

— by D’Angelo Gore, Eugene Kiely, Robert Farley and Brooks Jackson