Humor pulls no punches: Campaign ads can tickle political funny bone
Special To The Sentinel
December 23, 2007
A few weeks ago, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee jumped from relative obscurity among Republican presidential candidates to become the party's front-runner in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Huckabee owes at least part of his rising popularity to a television commercial where he and actor Chuck Norris trade straight-faced characteristics about the other.
"Mike Huckabee is a life-long hunter, who will protect our Second Amendment rights," Norris sternly says.Huckabee then responds, "There's no chin behind Chuck Norris's beard, only another fist."
Norris counters with, "Mike Huckabee wants to put the IRS out of business."
And Huckabee adds, "When Chuck Norris does a push-up, he isn't lifting himself up, he's pushing the earth down. . . . Chuck Norris doesn't endorse, he tells America how it's gonna be."
Is Huckabee saying that we should vote for him because Chuck Norris says so?
Well, maybe, but probably not.
Huckabee said he wanted the ad to increase interest in his campaign. This has certainly happened. News programs continue to run the ad at no cost to the Huckabee campaign. The ad also has had nearly a million hits on YouTube. Huckabee also said he wanted to remind voters that presidential campaigns should be fun.
Nothing is undervalued in political campaigning as much as humor -- unless it's honesty.
Humor can cut through the tedious babble of a campaign. It reduces the distance between the candidate and voters. The Huckabee ad, for instance, makes the candidate appear like he's regular folk. We want our presidents to be honest, fair, confident and decisive. But we also want them to be regular folk.
No president used humor better than Abraham Lincoln. In the television age, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who had little in common with the common people, nevertheless, used their sense of humor to connect with them.
Television commercials offer candidates their best opportunity to connect with voters. Commercials aren't meant to reveal everything about a candidate. They should, however, reveal something distinctive about him or her. Because candidates are paying for the ad, they have considerable control over what impression they want to leave with viewers. But what impression are they leaving?
Some candidates, such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, pay a lot of money for commercials. As anyone living in a state with an early primary knows, Romney's commercials take the air more often than planes at O'Hare Airport.
Romney's commercials reveal that the candidate is rich -- or how else could he afford to run so many television ads? From his ads, viewers also learn that he's physically fit, has nice hair, and was once a successful businessman. In his early commercials, Romney, speaking directly to viewers, had little to say; he appeared earnest, but his ideas were predictable, even trite.
Now, as Huckabee has become the front runner, Romney's campaign has gone on the attack. Romney now appears annoyed, defensive, even desperate, and, yes, humorless.
Should we vote for Mike Huckabee for president because he appears to have a sense of humor? No. But we also shouldn't vote for a candidate because her husband was president, because the candidate was a television actor, or because Oprah -- or Chuck Norris -- tells us to vote for a particular person.
Political campaigns tend to be risk adverse, which explains, in part, why there is so little humor in television commercials. There's also a mistaken impression that humor isn't presidential. We can't very well have someone like Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan in the White House, can we?
Chris Lamb is a professor of Communication at the College of Charleston. His latest book is I'll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, Putdowns and Ripostes. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org