Steve Chapman

Democrats are complaining about a Republican ad that ran in Tennessee making fun of Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. It features mock voters giving dumb reasons to vote for him, such as "Terrorists need their privacy," "Harold Ford looks nice -- isn't that enough?" and "So he took money from porn movie producers -- I mean, who hasn't?" It ends with a blonde bimbo, who says she met the congressman at a Playboy party, winking and cooing, "Harold, call me."

Ford's supporters and other critics say they are appalled at the ad because it appeals to latent racist sentiment by suggesting something untoward between Ford, who is black, and a scantily clad white woman. They have a point, but I suspect they are also appalled because it does something far more rare in a campaign -- it uses humor in a clever and effective way.

Political humor is one of those concepts, like Iraqi security, that usually amounts to a contradiction in terms. Funny campaign spots come along about as often as taverns on a Utah highway. And they seem to be getting scarcer, even though in other advertising, humor is all the rage. These days, TV product pitches are generally more likely to make you laugh than anything on "Saturday Night Live."

Most campaign fare is comical only by accident. The usual approach is an announcer who sounds like Darth Vader saying something like, "Did you know Harold Ford roomed with Muhammad Atta in college? Or that his first job was drowning kittens for a dollar a bag? Or that none of his relatives will sit next to him at Thanksgiving dinner? Harold Ford: He's stupid AND he's ugly."

The allegation that the GOP was trying to inflame the redneck vote is a bit overblown. Most whites couldn't care less about interracial relationships, and of those who do in Tennessee, none was going to vote for Ford anyway. And if the ad was going to call attention to the Playboy party (which he did attend, after all), there was no politically correct way to do it. Had the producers used an African-American female, they would have been vilified for implying that black women are easy.

The commercial may be faulted for lacking substance and resorting to innuendo on irrelevant topics. But in reality, the alternative to an ad like this is not a high-minded discussion of the merits of the Kyoto treaty or the funding crisis in Social Security.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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