Once, every so often, someone comes up with a political ad that is so monumentally awful it deserves special recognition. This first ad from Richard Painter’s U.S. Senate campaign is just such an ad. If you don’t recognize him, Painter is a Bush-era White House ethics lawyer who was a Republican for decades and is now running as a Democrat in Minnesota. Witness 40-seconds of pure comedy gold:
I know half the fun of this is just enjoying the gestalt of the piece, but let’s see if we can take this apart a bit and identify some of the elements that make this so instantly and unforgettably awful.
- The Concept: So someone working directly for Painter or hired by him as an outside consultant got the job of creating his first campaign ad, the one that would make everyone take him seriously. And that highly-paid professional said to themselves “I’ve got it! We’ll associate this campaign with a dumpster fire!” At this point, someone in the room should have said, “I’m not sure that’s a great idea.” But no one said that. Instead, they decided everyone would get this was a metaphor for the Trump administration because THE DUMPSTER IS ORANGE! Get it?
- The Staging: After a few seconds of video showing the fire up close, we cut to the shot that makes up most of this ad. It should be a shot of the candidate, Richard Painter, standing in front of a burning orange dumpster. But no, what we get instead is what’s they call a two-shot, i.e. a shot meant to show us two people at once. In this case, person #1 is Richard Painter and person #2, off to the right, is a beat-up garbage can. I think the idea here was to create some verisimilitude. They wanted it to look like Painter was really standing in an alley somewhere. So someone propped that can open just enough that you can see inside. There’s a piece of paper hanging halfway out next to Painter. Maybe that’s the script for this ad?
- The Suit: Does Richard Painter usually walk through alleys full of trash and flaming dumpsters in that well-tailored suit? It just raises questions this ad can’t answer.
- The Script: Having set up the visual metaphor, the candidate really should just make it very simple, i.e. “Washington, DC has become a dumpster fire. Someone needs to go to DC and put it out.” SPLASH! That would speak to the audience Painter is trying to grab, i.e. Democrats in Minnesota who don’t like the Trump administration. Painter does eventually say “There is an inferna burning in Washington,” (I know he means inferno but he says “inferna”), but only after a long list of possible reactions to the dumpster fire which is more confusing than clarifying.
- The Tone: Even with the awkward staging and the wordy script, this maybe could have worked if there was some sense the candidate was in on the joke. Hey, this is a silly metaphor but you know what I’m saying here. Wink, wink. Instead, Painter treats this like he’s auditioning for an 80s action movie. Okay, Richard, now look into the camera and say “Hasta la vista, baby.” The real problem is that Richard Painter doesn’t look or sound like an 80s action hero. In fact, I’m not really convinced he could beat the dumpster. I think he’d probably be overcome with smoke and have to be taken from the scene by ambulance.
- The Splash: I get this is one big metaphor, but shouldn’t Painter himself do something to put out the fire. I mean, the text is all about how to respond to a dumpster fire but ultimately he doesn’t do anything. Maybe it would make more sense if he rushed over with a fire extinguisher or at least, like, pulled a chain or snapped his fingers or something. Instead, he just pauses while a big rush of water comes from the sky and solves the problem. I guess all the other people waiting near this dumpster, watching it burn, feel like they put it out as much as Richard Painter did. After all, what did he do?
- That Final Shot: So there’s a thing in movie trailers where they show you a bit of the story in the trailer, they at the very end they give you some bit of spectacle or special effects or danger to finally convince you this is a must-see movie. This ad tries to do the same thing with Painter’s campaign and the final shot is this shot of Painter working his jaw like Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I can almost hear the director saying: Think about murder, Richard. You’re in a gunfight and you’re about to draw.
Bottom line: The cast of Spinal Tap should immediately option this ad as a concept for a feature film. It’s the story of a milquetoast college ethics professor who switches parties and tries to run for office by convincing everyone he’s actually not a milquetoast professor but a hardened American badass. In the meantime, here’s my concept for the second ad: Richard Painter on a Harley…in his suit.