Zombies, Cigarettes, and Will Rogers: The Year in Political Ads

In an election cycle that saw billions spent on ads, we sift through the highlights, as well as the lowlights.

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More than $3 billion— a record-shattering total—was spent on advertising during the 2012 election. And to be sure, many as were conventional and ineffective. But some others really stood out of the pack. Here's a round-up of the good, bad, and weird television advertisements from 2012.


Roland Sledge, running for the Texas Railroad Commission, made his case by highlighting his experience and hammered it home by illustrating a famous Will Rogers quote.

"Will Rogers said there are three kinds of men – the one that learns by reading, the few that learn by observation, and the rest have to pee on an electric fence," Sledge says into the camera. And yes, the ad ends with the faux electrocution of a man peeing on a fence.

Meet John Dennis. He ran for U.S. Congress in California against Nancy Pelosi, the top House Democrat. He ran a head-scratching ad depicting Pelosi as the screaming leader of a zombie clan set to sacrifice a lamb, only to be thwarted by Dennis – who tells viewers that despite the fact that he's running against the top-funded, San Francisco Democrat, he's "no sacrificial lamb." If that's where your pitch to voters begins, you're already in trouble. He got crushed in November.

This issue advertisement, run by the Agenda Project Action Fund, a progressive group, demonized the budget plan put forth by Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan. It doesn't aim for subtlety. Listing Medicare spending cuts the Ryan budget would make, the ad shows an old woman panicking as her wheelchair is wheeled up to the edge of a cliff. Points for hyperbole.


Pizza magnate Herman Cain might have seen his star rise so high during the Republican presidential primary in part because of his campaign's goofy approach to advertising, but this ad is still bad. Maybe so bad, it's good? It shows Cain's campaign manager Mark Block slowly inhaling and exhaling on a cigarette – it made such an impression that it was parodied all over the Internet. The ad actually ran in October 2011, but was a harbinger of things to come in an interesting array of ads during the GOP primary.

This racially-insensitive gem came from former Michigan Congressman Pete Hoekstra, a Republican, who plummeted in the polls against his opponent, incumbent Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow after the ad ran during the Super Bowl. It shows a smiling Asian woman speaking with a stilted accent cheering the outsourcing of Michigan jobs to China. You can't blame Hoekstra for going big, but this was big and bad – so voters sent him packing.

Rick Santorum, after all was said and done, gave eventual Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney the hardest fight for the nomination. And while the former Pennsylvania senator won voters over with his sweater vests and conservative convictions, he probably didn't do himself any favors with this ad. Supposed to be a take on a once-popular VH1 show, Pop-Up Video, this TV spot just ends up being cheesy rather than informative.


This advertisement wrote itself, thanks to Mitt Romney's private comments turning public. Romney was caught on video disparaging and writing off nearly half of all voters. It's always been true that the best attack ads play on voters' existing beliefs or fears about a candidate and in this case, the fat-cat, Thurston Howell image President Barack Obama's campaign had already painted of Romney was just reinforced with his own words. Juxtaposing the comments with images of hard-working, everyday Americans was just icing on the cake.

This advertisement is good not because it's accurate (it's not) but because it was seriously effective. Just like the Obama "47 percent" ad, this spot painted the president as someone spending willy-nilly on benefits for the undeserving, a concern many low- and middle-income Americans had about him as the economic recession dragged on and the country's debt spiraled out of control. It didn't matter that the ad was based on a twisted version of reality: that Obama had weakened work requirements for welfare. Actually, the Obama administration was asked by Republican governors for more leeway in administering the program and even specified that states had to prove a higher rate of welfare recipients working in order to be granted waivers.