When the video widely touted as the “most Offensive Campaign Ad of All Time” (NSFW) came out, I shrugged. “It’s just a video on the Internet,” I said. “Any crank can put a video on the Internet, and most of them do. It’s not even from her opponent Craig Huey’s official campaign.”
How wrong I was.
Maybe I would have been right a decade ago, although back then the video would have consisted entirely of a hamster moving slowly leftwards.
But this ad was so peculiarly egregious, so uniquely mean-spirited, and so downright offensive to everybody that it changed that.
Its maker, Ladd Ehlinger, FilmLadd, of Turn Right USA claimed that his aim was to make offensive viral videos. He did that, all right. But he overlooked one critical rule of ad-making: Know Your Audience.
The Internet only appears to consist of everyone. Sure, most people’s mothers are on it these days. But it still skews younger. And those teens on their smartphones sexting and passing your viral video around also skew more liberal.Some term it the Bastion of People Most Easily Offended By Everything. Put another way, it is precisely the demographic least likely to appreciate an ad portraying Janice Hahn as a stripper surrounded by stereotypical felons.
The older you get and the more likely you are to say things at parties that your grandchildren will regard as horribly racist, the less likely you are to be active on the Internet, except to check AOL periodically for emails that you can print out and read aloud to your golf group. 20 percent of people 74 and older and 44 percent of people 65-73 have no home broadband Internet access. It’s a digital divide.
So by making an ad like this, Ehlinger guaranteed that the people most likely to see it would be exactly the people most likely to feel that it was an affront to all their sensibilities.
“You heightened the ugliest allegation that one candidate made into a racist, sexist, online parody that made everyone on the Internet wince? Whose side are you on again?”
Sure, Turn Right USA might not have given Hahn the election. But it certainly didn’t hurt. Making this ad a viral video is like throwing steak to people who are allergic to steak but will get very indignant about it, while completely bypassing any packs of steak-hungry dogs.
Regular Internet users might recognize this video as trolling – intentionally provoking a disproportionate response. But trolling is not generally regarded as an optimal political strategy. Attack ads are one thing. Attack ads as provocative and irrelevant as this one are something else – especially when their origin is so plain. “We’re going to do something offensive to show up one of the candidates!” Ah, but which one? This is bending so far backwards that you fall on your face.
This has been a bugbear of comedy on the Internet lately. “Those were jokes!” Tracy Morgan screams. “I was telling jokes in a comedy club!” “Are you sure?” the Internet yells, “That sounded like a homophobic rant to me!” The Internet will take offense at anything. An ad like this is exactly what it wants.
“But it’s just a video on the Internet!” Those are famous last words along the lines of “This is probably an iceberg-free area,” and “Sure, I’d love to ride in your giant zeppelin.” No longer is anything “just a video on the Internet.” Scandals are online. Ads are online. Voters are too.
If you made a horrible, stereotypical, offensive ad and put it somewhere on the Internet, did it make a sound?
In this case, resoundingly.