The politician is sitting before a microphone at an official-looking hearing where he confesses: "I'm not denying I used cellular - it was an experimental time and someone passed it to me. I put it to my ear, but I didn't talk. I only listened."
The obvious takeoff on President Clinton's "I didn't inhale" comment from election years past could have been a comedy skit for late night television. But it is a television commercial for the Sprint PCS Free and Clear Plan, a digital service, and it is one of several commercials this season that spoof the Nov. 7 election.
It is not unusual for commercials to link up with an event like a presidential election. Advertisers like to be topical. But this year's menu of spots spoofing politicians is particularly spicy and comic.
The M & M/Mars unit of Mars Inc. has a commercial for Snickers candy bars poking fun at the battle of one- upmanship between Al Gore and George W. Bush. The Energizer bunny interrupts a mock political ad in which the surprised candidate - pontificating, with a playground as a backdrop -is accidentally knocked over by a child on a swing. The Seagram Company is running Captain Morgan - of Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum - for president and features the political consultant James Carville in a hot tub with two blondes in a commercial themed "putting the party into politics." And Wisk laundry detergent, made by Unilever, has a "Wisk Away the Mud" Internet promotion that lets viewers clean off muddied Bush and Gore cartoon characters who pop up out of washing machines like jack-in- the-boxes.
What does it all mean? Depending on whom you talk to, the spoofs reflect anything from good old American opportunism to general weariness over the entire spectacle that is American politics.
"This is a weird election, people aren't talking about it much, and there's a lot of indecision," said Judy Langer of Langer Associates, a market research company in New York. "I think that speaks more broadly to people just not being excited, and a feeling it's just politics. I think ever since the whole impeachment thing, it's even harder to believe in politicians."
The advertisers say the commercials are all in good fun, and in no way reflect anything more meaningful than an attempt to piggyback on an event that is getting attention right now - no different than the hoopla surrounding the Super Bowl or the Olympics. Advertisers' first concern, as always, is that their ads are noticed amid the endless clutter of media messages that besiege viewers daily. The ads are also trying to connect with viewers by winking at the political process in the same way they believe consumers are viewing it.
"I think it's good that we can, in our country, make jokes about these things, and I do believe the American people take it with a certain degree of wryness," said Ted Sann, chief creative officer at BBDO Worldwide in New York, part of the Omnicom Group.
American politics is also a natural for comedy, said Charlie Miesmer, BBDO's senior executive creative director. He said there was something about the oversized ambition of politicians that just begged for satire.
Unilever began its Wisk Internet promotion as a way to appear hip and be entertaining.
"We've been trying to find more engaging, tongue in cheek ways to talk to our consumers," said Carlos Ortiz-Valero, the Wisk brand manager. "We recognize that laundry isn't so interesting."
All the talk of voter indecision this year fit perfectly with BBDO's long- running campaign for Snickers, which depicts the candy bar as a filling snack to hold you over when you have to wait, said Mr. Miesmer. In the spot, an animated Republican elephant symbol and a Democratic donkey appear on a voter's shoulder as he stands in a voting booth trying to make up his mind. "My father was president," says the elephant, representing Mr. Bush. "Well, I invented the Internet," says the donkey, an unveiled reference to the vice president's gaffe about the Web.
Of course, not all the ads linked to the election are cutting edge. Maxwell House coffee has a homey "Good to the last drop" commercial from Ogilvy & Mather in New York, part of the WPP Group, that suggests supporting a candidate you believe in.
"We think people do have elections on minds out there, and this was a way of taking their interest in the general election and bringing it back to Maxwell House," said Jim Nolan, an Ogilvy creative director, who said the topicality of the elections was the impetus for the commercial.
The attention surrounding every comment in a political campaign led to a commercial from Dairy Management, a group that promotes dairy products, about an imaginary candidate who makes the huge gaffe of announcing that he doesn't care for cheese. The commercial created by Omnicom's DDB Worldwide in Chicago shows the candidate's entire campaign unraveling because of the comment, even while the spin masters of the campaign come up with lines like "what if we say he chewed but never swallowed."
"I think the best ads, when they work, have a sense of reality and a grain of truth," said Adam Glickman, a DDB Chicago creative director on the account.
Sprint had to improvise when the company's popular spokesman - a gumshoe called Sprintman who rescues people from their old cellular ways - was unavailable during the recent actors' strike. The ad agency Publicis & Hal Riney in San Francisco, part of Publicis Groupe S.A., came up with several spots featuring life transformations before and after cellular, like the one of the remorseful politician, said Scott Relf, Sprint's senior vice president of marketing.
Seagram's "presidential campaign" for Captain Morgan has been going on all year via Grey Worldwide, New York, part of the Grey Global Group, giving the company many opportunities for bar promotions and guest appearances. Recently, Seagram, with Mr. Carville, announced at the Playboy mansion that a former Playboy playmate, Kalin Olson, is Captain Morgan's running mate.
"There are two people you can never get in trouble for making fun of: yourself and politicians," Mr. Carville said.
Patricia Winters Lauro, The New York Times. October 25, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The New York Times. All rights reserved.