Political Smear Ads Go High-Tech (and Oddball)

Meg Whitman, the former chief of eBay and GOP candidate for California governor in 2010 is portrayed as an online avatar in an ad by the independet Democratic group Level the Playing Field.
CBS
The battle for control of Congress in 2010 promises to be fierce. And if the campaign ads some voters are already seeing in the primaries are any indication, it could be nasty as well. As CBS News political correspondent Jeff Greenfield reports, the negativity has gone high tech.

It's a familiar political tactic - run an ad that shows your opponent looking silly, or suspicious. But in California this primary season, the negative images are out of this world - literally.

First the campaign of Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina depicted primary rival Tom Campbell as a demon sheep.

The same campaign has produced an eight-minute video that includes a lengthy portrayal of incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer as a blimp powered by hot air.

And while former eBay chief Meg Whitman has already spent more than $45 million on her campaign for governor, an unaffiliated Democratic campaign group has gone on YouTube with a tactic right out of a Hollywood smash hit: an ad that portrays Whitman as an online avatar - a poke at her time in the dot-com world.

There's nothing new about portraying politicians as, literally, inhuman. Abe Lincoln was drawn as an ape and 19th century cartoonist Thomas Nast showed New York Democrats as predatory tigers.

Sean Clegg, whose group "Level the Playing Field" created the "Meg-a-Tar" video, says the ad succeeds at capturing audiences' attention.

"Most political ads these days are still stuck in the era of Walter Cronkite. The 'Meg-a-Tar' ad is designed for the era of John Stewart and YouTube," he said. "If you're going to try to level the playing field with $20 million against $200 million you have to make creative use of your resources and stretch every dollar."

But veteran Republican campaign strategist Dan Schnur warns that there's a danger in such startling images.

"There is a fine line between an ad that is sufficiently unique to reinforce an argument and an ad that is so peculiar and so unique that it distracts from it," Schnur said. "The so-called demon sheep ad is very unique. It's actually pretty weird. And what that means is that instead of talking about Tom Campbell and taxes we are talking about sheep."

It's too soon to know whether these avatars will have any real political impact this November. But if they do - there's no telling where it might lead.