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But the liberal advocacy group MoveOn turned that insiders' game on its head on Monday by hosting a celebrity-packed gala to announce the winner of its grassroots competition for the most memorable 30-second take on why George W. Bush's presidency has been a disaster for America.
In an event that felt like a cross between MTV's Music Awards and a political pep rally, close to 2000 MoveOn supporters packed the Hammerstein Ballroom to watch the winning entries, which were presented by Michael Moore, Al Franken, Julia Stiles, John Sayles, and Janeane Garofalo. The event also featured Bush-bashing performances by Margaret Cho, Chuck D, Moby, and Rufus Wainwright.
While it may have been a bit odd to hear the muckraking Moore praise political advertising as an "art form," the contest succeeded in one of its central goals: making the nuts and bolts of election politics hip.
"In this case, the medium really is the message," says Eli Pariser, MoveOn's 23-year-old international campaigns director, who helped come up with the idea for the contest with Moby, singer Laura Dawn, and Jonathan Soros, son of billionaire philanthropist George Soros. "It signals a new kind of small-d democratic approach to political communication."
More than more than 1500 entries were submitted to the contest website, and more than 110,000 people logged on to vote, posting 2.9 million ratings to select the best adalong with three more categories (Funniest, Best Youth Market, and Best Animation) which were added in the last week of the contest to acknowledge the diverse range of entries.
The overwhelming response illustrates how the Internet and low-cost technology are chipping away at barriers to political participation. TV ads for major candidates generally cost about $25,000 to $50,000 to produce. But with a digital video camera and some desktop editing software, a TV-ready ad can be produced for a few hundred dollars or less. (One of the MoveOn finalists called "Desktop" showed the image of a computer desktop with a mouse highlighting and then dragging folders labeled "Budget Surplus" and "Environment" into the Trash. It probably cost about $1.99 to make.)
And that small-d approach is now going mainstream: Pariser told the cheering crowd Monday that MoveOn is seeking to air the winner of its contest in one the of highly coveted ad spots during the Super Bowl on February 1. The group has already paid $300,000 to run the ad on CNN from January 17 to 21, timed to coincide with Bush's State of the Union address on January 20. And Nightline is now devoting a whole show to MoveOn, which it plans to air the same week.
The ad competition amounts to something of a newfangled hack on an old gambit. Since the early days of radio, companies have used contests to promote new products like toothpaste by asking people to come up with catchy jingles. In this case, MoveOn used its TV ad contest to promote a new kind of populist attack on Bush, using homemade commercials to highlight the president's deficiencies at a time when the brawling Democrats are at each other's throats.
Even before MoveOn spends a dime on media buys, millions will have seen or heard about the ads, thanks to all the media hypeand controversy. Over the past week the Republican Party has been foaming at the mouth over a pair of entries submitted to the contest that compared Bush's tactics to those of Adolf Hitler. Though MoveOn apologized and pulled the ads from the contest's website, agreeing that they were in poor taste, that wasn't enough for Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie and his allies, who continue to accuse MoveOn of being a haven for "left wing hate speech."
Never mind that MoveOn had nothing to do with the content of these two ads, both of which received lowest scores during the online voting and would never have gotten airplay had the RNC not dragged them onto a host of news shows in order to make a stink.
In fact, the ad that received the most votes from MoveOn members was one of the most polished and least extreme entries of the bunch. Called "Child's Pay," it opens with a soft backing track of blues guitar and images of young children performing difficult menial jobswashing dishes, hauling trash, working an assembly linefollowed by the line: "Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1 trillion deficit?"
The creator, Charlie Fisher of Denver, is a former Republican and 38-year-old Internet ad executive whose clients include multinational corporations. Fisher said he conceived the spot with Republican voters in mind: "Money is dear to Republicans, so I wanted to expose their hypocrisy for being big-government spenders," Fisher said, adding, "I kept reading in the paper that future generations would have to pay for the war in Iraq, so that's what made me think of the idea of using kids working." Fisher said the ad cost about $1500 to film; the kids were paid with $15 gift certificates to Toys R Us.
The ad selected as the funniest is more in your face. Called "If Parents Acted Like Bush," it portrays a loutish father forgetting to drive his daughter to school, invading her privacy on the toilet, and sleeping with another woman because "she's rich." Christopher Fink, an independent filmmaker in California, says he shot the spot in one day for about $50, casting friends and family members in the piece.
"This contest represents a whole new direction for the left," says filmmaker Michael Moore, who was one of the media "experts" recruited to help judge the ads. (Other judges included veteran Democratic consultants James Carville and Donna Brazile, Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg, along with Russell Simmons, Jack Black, Jessica Lange, Eddie Vedder, and Michael Stipe.) "The problem with liberals in the past is they've not been willing to go where the people are at, which is sitting on the couch eating Doritos and watching ads," says Moore. "The only way we're going to beat the right is at their own game."
Already, MoveOn's Voter Fund has raised more than $11 million to finance ads attacking the Bush Administration's polices in five battleground states (Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia). Pariser says most of the money has come through small donations ($25 on average) from MoveOn's 1.7 million U.S. members, though billionaires George Soros and Peter Lewis, the founder of Progressive Insurance, have pledged $5 million in matching funds for every two dollars that MoveOn raises. That $11 million could easily double as the race for the White House intensifies, says Bill Zimmerman of Zimmerman & Markman, an ad firm that specializes in grassroots campaigns and created the battleground spots along with MoveOn's previous issue ads.
MoveOn's growing financial heft is the real reason why the Republican Party is doing everything it can to undercut the group's influence. Last week when MoveOn launched an attacking Bush's Medicare plan (the ad shows an actor playing Bush literally pulling the rug out from under seniors), the Republican National Committee sent letters to all 66 stations where the ad was running, claiming that it falsely accused Bush of accepting money from drug companies, and demanded that it be removed. MoveOn sent the stations newspaper articles to substantiate its claims and the ad continues to run.
Meanwhile, the conservative website Rightmarch.com is soliciting grassroots donations to run radio spots and fullpage newspaper ads attacking MoveOn for posting the Hitler/Bush ad entries and calling on the Democratic candidates to repudiate the group's "bigoted hatemongering."
Of course, the Republicans didn't apologize when GOP allies ran attack ads during the Congressional elections that morphed disabled veteran Senator Max Cleland into Osama bin Laden, and turned Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle into Saddam Hussein in order to portray the Dems as being soft on terrorism. Nor did the RNC complain when the New York Post ran an op-ed by conservative columnist Ralph Peters comparing Howard Dean to Hitler.
Such skew from the right is now fueling MoveOn competitors to make and fund their own counterattacks. "Army of One," one of the more harshly toned ads that made it into MoveOn's finals, is already airing on Fox News in New Hampshire, thanks to the help of a deep-pocketed investor. Produced by members of TakeBackTheMedia.com, it blames the Bush administration for the unnecessary deaths of American soldiers and "slaughter" of 8,000 Iraqi civiliansa take that's sure to rile Bush fans. (The group has already been assailed for posting a tongue-in-cheek flash movie to its website called, "Bush Is Not a Nazi, So Stop Saying That.")
It remains to be seen whether such ads can translate advocacy into effective spin. While many of the commercials entered in the MoveOn contest may gratify Bush haters, they could also alienate swing voters and independents, that sacred middle that the Democrats must win over to defeat Bush.
And running ads, however hyped, is not the same thing as getting progressives and Democrats to solidify their ranks around a single candidate. But Pariser insists there's a value to elevating the voice of Bush's grassroots opposition into the mainstream. "The Republicans know that it's just as important to rally the base as the people who may or not agree with you. Activating your core voters is just as important as going after the swings."
Anger, the left is discovering, has its uses. As John Sayles, a godfather of independent filmmaking, told the gathering of MoveOn faithful on Monday: "It's not our responsibility to be polite. It's not our responsibility to be tasteful. Because the shit that's happening to us and in our name has got to stop."