The Do-It-Yourself Attack Ad

If you’ve spent any time online at all in 2004, this next item won’t come as any surprise. For the 2004 “Year in Ideas” issue of the New York Times Magazine, I wrote a piece about the grassroots surge of web-based political agitprop:

The Do-It-Yourself Attack Ad

by Clive Thompson

For a political ad, ”Bush Hates Veterans” is about as ferocious as they come. ”My question to Mr. Bush is, Do you support the troops? You’re the one who hates the troops,” shouts an angry male voice, as pictures of maimed soldiers fill the screen. ”And you sent them off to die so your friends could get rich!”

You might wonder which TV network would air such a blunt ad, and the answer is none of them. ”Bush Hates Veterans” is an online ad, viewable at, the Web site of Eric Blumrich, a 34-year-old Web designer in Montclair, N.J. When the Iraq war began, Blumrich started creating spots attacking the Republicans. He has made 27 of them, and more than 3.2 million people have visited his site to watch them. ”I’d been yelling about politics for years, but no one listened to me,” he says. ”Then I put up a couple of animations, and everyone watches.”

Normally, we think of political ads as expensive products, financed by established parties and deep-pocketed organizations. But this election, technology made things drastically cheaper. Inexpensive home video cameras could shoot broadcast-quality footage; cheap software for editing could transform the footage into a punchy spot. Suddenly, virtually any average citizen could run his or her own campaign ad, and this year, it sometimes seemed, virtually any citizen did. Partisans who loathed Howard Dean remixed his infamous scream in parody music; others assembled ”American Betrayal?” an ad pillorying John Kerry over his Vietnam War protests. When ran a competition for the best self-produced TV spot attacking Bush, 1,500 people submitted ads. ”They were terrific,” says Eli Pariser, the executive director of MoveOn PAC. ”They were much funnier than the ones you see on TV.”

They were certainly more savage. With no TV censors to appease, online ads could throw punches far below the belt. (Maybe too far: MoveOn was criticized for briefly posting two amateur ads that compared Bush with Hitler.) If this political season was more rancorous than most, it was partly because of this explosion of grass-roots advertising, swapped online by gleeful partisans.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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