Actually, there is such a thing as bad publicity. It’s the kind Pete Hoekstra is getting right now.
Call them the Google Circles of Hell. They’re reserved for people who commit modern crimes, like tweeting a bad joke too soon after a tragedy (Gilbert Gottfried) or ranting to a comedy show audience with the N-word (Michael Richards) or — now, in the case of Pete Hoekstra — making a horrible stereotypical travesty of a campaign ad.
These are the crimes for which the Internet judges and does not forgive. Commit one, and you can never type your name into a search engine again without Google suggesting “racist” or “racist ad” or “Person Who’d Probably Have Conversation Material In Common With Rick Santorum.”
Now, Pete Hoekstra’s getting a great seat in the fetid online marsh under Satan’s tail.
He made the critical error of using Strategic Perception, they of “Mourning in America” and “Demon Sheep” as his ad firm. His Michigan Senate campaign ad shows a young Asian woman speaking in imperfect English about “Debbie Spend-it-Now” and “Pete Spend-It-Not.” Now he claims that it isn’t stereotypical. This strikes me as false, unless he’s coming from a place where the only stereotypes about Chinese people are overwhelmingly positive. (“If it were stereotypical, the actress would be excelling at math.”)
“If you don’t notice it, why bother?” asks Strategic Perception’s web site. The ad group bills itself as “unusual thoughts that win,” which might be in the Charlie Sheen sense of the word “win” — that is, attract you lots of attention while destroying your chance of holding public office.
Sure, it gets attention. But then several months pass and your opponent is in office and your name is quite literally mud.
The best and worst that can be said of the ad is that the actress does not add accent to injury. She rides in on a bicycle through what appears to be a rice paddy and simply reads the lines, apparently written by some sort of horrible dialectician who arrived in a time machine from 1920. Stereotyped music plays. “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. Thank you Debbie Spend-it-now.” It’s like if someone tried to use Song of the South as a campaign commercial. The only person who comes out of it looking good is whoever this Debbie Spend-It-Now person is, if only because you can be sure she was not involved in the making of this ad.
There’s an uncomfortable and increasingly visibe strain of Fear of the Chinese that hums behind the Fear of Our Debt To China. From the governor who came under fire for saying that the Chinese were going to the stadium uphill in snow both ways while doing calculus, to that ad from the last cycle that featured a hypothetical future Chinese professor describing the fall of America, the question has always been: how far can you go exploiting people’s concerns about China and America’s future without veering into racist territory? This ad is the answer to that question. How far is too far? This is.
If attention is all that you love, that’s exactly what this ad gets you. But I think before wishing for attention Hoekstra should have stipulated, “The kind of attention that doesn’t come from people denouncing you for being uncomfortably racist.” Unless the people of Michigan listed Embracing Horrible Stereotyped Notions of Chinese People as a quality they like in their elected officials, it seems like a gruesome miscalculation.