CHICAGO -- Democrats have been complaining about a Republican ad that ran in Tennessee making fun of Senate candidate Rep. Harold E. 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 blond woman, who says she met the congressman at a Playboy party, winking and cooing, "Harold, call me."
Mr. 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 Mr. 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 seem to be getting scarcer, even though in other advertising, humor is all the rage.
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 Mohamed 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 Mr. 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 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.
The alternative is the schmaltzy spot where Mr. Ford's opponent, Republican Bob Corker, trots out his teenage daughters to swear their father is a great guy, or the excruciatingly earnest one where he gazes into his mother's eyes and confides that, as mayor of Chattanooga, he cut violent crime by 50 percent.
For all the Democratic complaints, the Playboy ad functioned as a hanging curveball for Mr. Ford, a 36-year-old bachelor, whose response was: "You know your opponent is scared when his main opposition against you is, `My opponent likes girls.'"
The main value of the ad was to provide some relief from the phony sincerity and headache-inducing nastiness that suffuse most election commercials. Truly clever ads are rare in any election. But, laments Evan Tracey, head of TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG, which researches political advertising, "This year has been one of the least humorous years I remember."
Aside from the Ford spot, there have been a few respites. Democrat Ned Lamont, running for the Senate from Connecticut, pre-empted his opponent with a spoof attack ad saying "Meet Ned Lamont. He can't make a decent cup of coffee." Kinky Friedman, an independent candidate for governor of Texas, had a spot in which he announced his border policy: "I'll keep us out of war with Oklahoma."
None of these guys is going to host the Oscars, but if it's a choice between mediocre jokes and testimonials from daughters, I'll go with the jokes. Amid the usual election screeching, this sort of change reminds me of the scene in Ocean's Eleven where ex-husband George Clooney, just out of prison, asks Julia Roberts if her new beau makes her laugh. Her answer? "He doesn't make me cry."
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.