When the Web-based political group MoveOn.org announced a contest in October for homemade commercials challenging the Bush administration (the winner to be shown on television during the week of the State of the Union address) grass-roots America proved a willing and eager advertising agency.
Thirty-second spots poured in by the hundreds in e-mail attachments to MoveOn.org, which has already shown that the Internet can be a battering ram for political activism by organizing protests against the invasion of Iraq. Last week, the group posted 1,017 of the amateur commercials on a Web site (www.bushin30seconds.org), asking viewers to pick their favorites.
`AMERIGONE' by Peter Burford.
In the first hour of polling on Wednesday, more than 5,700 votes were logged. So many people visited the site that MoveOn, experiencing bandwidth problems, limited the curious to 20 ads a day.
Next month the top vote-getters will be shown to a panel of left-leaning celebrity judges including Moby, Michael Moore, Janeane Garofalo, Margaret Cho and Gus Van Sant, with one or more winning entries to be broadcast as paid advertisements in Washington, D.C., in potential swing states or perhaps nationally.
What the cascade of entries demonstrates is that the home-movie revolution made possible by inexpensive digital camcorders and off-the-shelf software has elevated the United States from merely being a nation of wedding videographers.
Even so, the production values of many spots are a bit shaky, and the content often overheated. "Bush Cheney Auto World," a typical entry, from Tracy Spaight, a high-school history teacher in Houston, posits an oily salesman whose motto is: "Where we always say what you want to hear." But a number of the ads are unexpectedly professional-looking, at least on a par with the burnished style and hard-hitting messages of political ads made by Madison Avenue pros or K Street consultants in untucked shirttails.
The amateur ad makers of the left are charged up about the country's dependence on fossil fuels, the plight of education and the $87.5 billion spending package for Iraq. They tabulate Mr. Bush's perceived deceptions. He is "Bushoccio," an inflatable Hot Air President Doll whose box bears the product warning: "Not designed for poor people. Not actually elected."
Contributors to the contest include recent graduates of the Kennedy School of Government, a teacher from Detroit, stand-up comics, amateur impressionists, a D.J. and more than a few self-styled rappers.
Sets and props have a quaintly home-grown provenance. Pies and cakes are used to illustrate budget and tax cuts. A pot on the verge of boiling over is Iraq. Water gurgling down a drain is "American Credibility." A toilet flushes away "Our Children's Future," played in another ad by a fragile U.S. Grade A egg.
Movies and TV shows are the ad makers' grist. "I'm concerned, George, I'm concerned about how you've dealt with the economy," drones a computer in a spot titled "2004: A Political Odyssey."
Christopher Fink, an independent filmmaker in California, used his ranch-style house in the San Fernando Valley as a set and recruited his sister as cinematographer after she made an accomplished video of his wife's baby shower.
In the spot titled "If Parents Acted Like Bush," Mr. Fink plays the president as a cad who beds down with special interests. His car pulls away from the house in the morning, leaving his teenage daughter (Mr. Fink's niece) to find her own way to school. He buys a motorcycle and tells the Terminator-face biker that his daughter will pay for it.
Eli Pariser, left, of MoveOn and Moby go over submissions. (NYT Photo/Christopher Smith)
`BUSH CHENEY AUTO WORLD' by Tracy Spaight.
Then she walks in on him in his bedroom, snuggling with a blonde who isn't her mother. "It's O.K.," he cries, "she's rich!"
And how much did the spot cost? "Including catering? That was most of the budget — the doughnuts," Mr. Fink said. "It couldn't have cost me more than 50 bucks."
Donnie Deutsch, a prominent New York advertising executive who worked on the campaign of Bill Clinton in 1992, looked at a sample of the MoveOn ads last week and was impressed. "I thought some of it was very fresh and interesting — obviously amateurish in some of its creative license — but certainly very creative in its thinking," he said.
However, Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist who worked on Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign for governor of California, was more dismissive. "I'd say a lot of this looks like MoveOn self-promotion," he said in a message sent, appropriately enough, by e-mail over his BlackBerry. "Having an insult-the-president home-movie contest is not smart politics."
Through its Voter Fund, which solicits donations online, in part from Web surfers who must register to view the anti-Bush ads, MoveOn aims to raise about $15 million for advertising in battleground states to unseat Mr. Bush, said Eli Pariser, who oversees the group's fund-raising.
In addition to the amateur ads, MoveOn has a professional agency on retainer. But Mr. Pariser said he was so pleased with the ads that have rolled in that MoveOn may approach its 1.7 million members in this country and say, "Here are 10 great ads, and we want to run all of them."
It would not be the first time the group has proven the power of the Internet for political activism. Founded five years ago to oppose the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, MoveOn.org became a catalyst for demonstrations earlier this year, and subsequently raised more than $7 million from 133,000 donors to oppose Mr. Bush's policies. Last month two billionaire philanthropists, George Soros and Peter B. Lewis, announced they would match contributions to the group up to $5 million between them.
The content of the MoveOn ads is circumscribed by the campaign finance reforms of the McCain-Feingold Law, upheld earlier this month by the Supreme Court. While prohibiting soft-money donations to political parties, the law allows donations to flow to independent groups like MoveOn as long they run only informational ads and do not specifically endorse a candidate.
Thus MoveOn's call for submissions was careful to solicit ads that would help voters "understand the truth about George Bush." No ads supporting the president's policies were sent in, contest organizers noted. They also disqualified about 100 submissions, including some for reasons of taste. A spot showing a frog dropped into boiling water, a metaphor for "how the administration is turning up the heat in this country," according to its director, was deemed unsuitable for television.
Still, plenty of the ads that made the cut exhibit the inflamed passions of street rallies. The scenarios are sometimes closer to angry guerrilla theater than witty "Saturday Night Live" spoofs. A man fills his gas tank, then shoots the cashier instead of paying. "If you wouldn't tolerate this from a normal citizen," the screen reads, "why would you from your president?"
"Follow the Leader" compares Mr. Bush to a schoolyard bully who shoots a schoolmate in the back. "Connect the Dots" maintains that Mr. Bush "has established links to known terrorist organizations." Still another commercial claims he has "ties to the Bin Laden family."
Larry McCarthy, a Republican strategist who in 1988 helped produce a notorious television ad using a convicted murderer, Willie Horton, to suggest that the Democratic nominee, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, was soft on crime, has not seen the MoveOn ads, but he admired the idea.
"It's certainly proof of the march of technology, letting everybody and anybody be an ad maker," he said.
"As a fund-raiser gimmick, I think it's pretty good," he continued. "I wouldn't be surprised if somebody on the Republican side decided that there's just as much or more fodder on Howard Dean, so why don't you let those little Republicans with camcorders have a go at it too?"
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company