How we make the call
Truth Squad assigns five ratings to the political statements we review, in descending levels of accuracy:
Advertising isn’t exclusive to the U.S., but our robust consumer markets make it a never-ending circus clamoring for our attention, telling us that our family’s happiness may very well depend on making the right choice of laundry detergent. We’ll watch the Super Bowl long after a boring football game has lost our interest, for fear of missing a spot everyone will be talking about tomorrow. Which is a long way of saying that when you watch as many ads as the Truth Squad does, sooner or later you face a reckoning – either let this stuff drive you crazy or relax, take a deep breath and enjoy the ride.
As Election Day brings it all to a close, here’s a look at some of the best, worst and most memorable U.S. political ads of the 2016 season:
In this primary spot, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz offers a sly, provocative take on the debate over illegal immigration, while striking a blow against what he sees as the mainstream media’s disinterested coverage. It begins with a shot of a woman in high heels on the run in what looks like a desert landscape. As the ad rolls, we see business-suited, briefcase-toting men and women running along with her, splashing through a river, as Cruz’s voice observes: “The politics of it would be very different if a bunch of lawyers and bankers were crossing the Rio Grande.” The ad is creative and effective in delivering its message, which isn’t really about the wisdom of wearing practical footwear to cross the Mexican border.
Speaking of the Mexican border, no wonder we’re having problems down South – the border appears to be guarded by little more than a chain-link fence and a sign reading “do not cross.” In this ad, three actors (who, we feel confident, will never thank the Academy) run up, one carrying a pair of wire cutters, and have a conversation in community-theater Spanish accents about the need to stop “Mike Pape, the conservative running for Congress who will help Trump build the wall.” We’d like to think the blooper reel for this one features one of those stick-on, bad-hombre mustaches falling off.
The 2016 presidential race has gone well below the belt more than once, yet it took a Wisconsin senator to bring excretory fluids into it. But it’s cute, because if there’s one group of people allowed to pee on us with impunity, it’s baby boys during diaper changes. Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, facing Democrat Russ Feingold in a rematch of their 2010 race, enlisted one of his grandsons – in a wee Green Bay Packers jersey – in an ad that suggests he’s not above doing dirty work, both diapers and politics.
We can’t stop watching this one, Bernie Sanders’ “America,” set to the Simon & Garfunkel song of the same name, the way its imagery conjures not only the young and working-class voters who supported Sanders in the Democratic primaries, but his policies, too. Clean-energy wind turbines turn in a farm field. A lesbian couple appear as the lyrics say “marry.” Of course the faces are multi-ethnic – every ad has that – but look at how they multiply and fade into a mosaic as “they’ve all come to look for America” soars on the soundtrack. Cows! Coffee shops! Small towns! Big cities! We want to go to there.
In Hillary Clinton’s America, not only is “ISIS on the rise...North Korea threatening...Iran promoting terrorism,” but there seems to be some sort of gray miasma in the air that only clears when Donald Trump arrives on the scene, bringing sunshine with him. (Maybe that’s why she’s shown coughing and near physical collapse.) It’s a standard political-ad tactic to find the worst, most unflattering photos and footage of your opponent, then shade and filter them to look even worse, but Trump lucked into some shots of Clinton as she’s faltered on the campaign trail and made the most of them. Do you want a president who sniffs, America? Or one who coughs?
Say this for the National Rifle Association: It doesn’t waste screen time on subtlety. When it went to bat for Donald Trump, the NRA swung for the fences, deploying Mark “Oz” Geist, a veteran of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, to stand in a field of headstones and growl, “A lot of people say they are not going to vote this November, because their candidate didn’t win. Well, I know some other people who won’t be voting this year, either.” Do your part, Geist commands.
The admakers behind Hillary Clinton have benefited from her opponent’s serial missteps on the campaign trail. Still, they get credit for converting Trump’s blunders into piercing attack ads. Simple spots of children watching Donald Trump’s more boorish moments on television, or young girls looking at themselves in mirrors as Trump speaks in the background of fat female faces and flat chests, hit emotional notes (and female voters) right in the feels, as the kids say. But none were as wrenching as “Captain Khan,” the story of the Muslim soldier who heroically saved his unit from a suicide bomber. His father trembles on the brink of tears as he says, “I want to ask Mr. Trump: Would my son have a place in your America?”
The right ad can be a game-changer, and this one, featuring blindfolded Missouri Senate candidate and Army veteran Jason Kander assembling an AR-15 rifle as capably as Anthony Bourdain wields a chef’s knife, changed the game. What looked like an easy reelection for incumbent Republican Roy Blunt is now a dead heat, in part because of Kander’s demonstrated ease with weaponry in this conservative state. Also, guns and candidates for public office are officially a thing, at least in Missouri, as we see in the next spot.
Eric Greitens is a decorated military veteran running for governor of Missouri, and he knows what his voters want: To see him sit down with an enormous weaponry and fire a zillion rounds, for no apparent reason than there is no better way to say “conservative warrior” than firing a high-caliber, Gatling-style machine gun as though the entire ISIS leadership is standing downrange. #hellyeahguns And yet, in a twist that demonstrates it’s not always the size of the gun that matters, the NRA has endorsed Greitens’ Democratic opponent.
Poor Charlyn Daugherty. Her husband Gerald is hanging around the house, yammering on about taxation and per-diem costs at the county jail, and frankly, it is making her crazy. This spot, which is as slick and well-done as any for a national candidate this year, is for a county commission seat in Travis County, Texas – home of the state capital, to be sure, but still: the county commission. It helps that both Daughterys are camera-ready naturals, particularly the Missus. “Please re-elect Gerald,” she says, as her husband natters on about code violations. “Please.” You’ll want to watch this one twice.