Televised political ads are, for better or worse, entertainment. Like other TV productions, they try to hook us with drama, comedy, music, acting and a lot of fanciful made-up stuff.
So what are the hits and misses among current showbiz efforts by Wisconsin politicians and their allies?
This is a job for a TV critic.
Club for Growth: '18 Years Is Enough'
The national conservative organization Club for Growth attacks Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold in this bizarre ad. The bizarre part is not the ad's message, which is Republican boilerplate. Feingold "voted to use our tax money to bail out the car companies" and "voted for the job-killing cap-and-trade energy tax." Turns out he also "voted for the national debt." Who knew that had come up for a vote?
No, the bizarre part is the production. The ad works overtime to convey a sinister tone, becoming unintentionally hilarious in the process.
"18 Years Is Enough" begins with a creepy black-and-white picture of Feingold and dissonant music right out of a horror-movie trailer. The deep-voiced narrator is out of the same trailer, hissing, "What's happened to Russ Feingold?" His tone is so ominous that you expect the answer to be: "His soul has been sucked out of his body by devils!"
The ad emphasizes Feingold's "18 years in Washington" with pages blowing off a calendar at demon speed, a spooky clock traversing the screen, and infernal ticking sounds. It emphasizes his allegedly big-spending ways with phantom paychecks disappearing one by one and dollars vanishing off a stack. At the end, that spooky clock returns, its hands spinning wildly. All these images have a ghostly feel, suggesting that the possessed Feingold won't rest until he drags Wisconsin straight to hell.
"18 Years Is Enough" makes you think we don't need a new U.S. senator so much as an exorcist.
Ron Johnson: 'The Johnson Family'
Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican running for U.S. Senate, tries to come across as "authentic" by satirizing politicians who make fake-looking TV ads with their families. In "The Johnson Family," Johnson's wife and three kids sing his praises while emphasizing the corniness of their lines.
"He's a really super dad!" says daughter Carey, deliberately overdoing the perkiness.
"He's a great role model," says son Ben in a stagy monotone while staring at a cell phone.
"He's worked extremely hard all his life!" says daughter Jenna, scrunching up her face as she pretends to read a cue card.
Johnson himself breaks in, supposedly putting an end to the artifice. "Obviously I'm not a professional politician, and they're not professional actors. We're just a Wisconsin family worried about our country!"
But Johnson's statement is untrue. These people are actors, whether professional or not. They've practiced their lines and their gestures, including the orchestrated fist-bumping and head-shaking. Each creates a character: enthusiastic Carey, bored Ben, dopey Jenna. Johnson plays a character as well. He's the father figure too concerned with getting "our nation's house in order" to fool around with campaign-ad artifice.
That's right - "The Johnson Family" is campaign-ad artifice pretending to be anti-campaign-ad artifice. It makes you wonder what character Johnson will play if he does get elected to the Senate.
Ron Johnson: 'Real World'
This ad portrays would-be Sen. Johnson as a hands-on industrialist walking through his factory in safety glasses. He's surrounded by regular-guy factory workers from central casting, also wearing safety glasses. "Remember when Wisconsin companies manufactured products and sold them all over the world?" Johnson asks. "In our company we don't export jobs, we export plastic!"
That's cool. I leaned forward to find out how Johnson plans to help other Wisconsin companies sell their products all over the world, but he never gets around to that. Apparently, he's just happy that his own company is doing well.
Johnson goes on to argue that "we have to boot professional politicians out of Washington," but he doesn't explain how that will help state businesses. Instead, he points at the camera and jerks his thumb a lot.
Maybe that kind of exaggerated gesturing, coupled with a widespread use of safety glasses, will get our economy back on track. Hey, anything's worth a try.
Russ Feingold: 'Just Say No'
Sen. Feingold begins his ad with a sunset over Lake Michigan and bland guitar music. "When I look at Lake Michigan," Feingold says, standing on the shore, "I see a resource that Wisconsin needs to protect for future generations."
Feingold contrasts his stand against drilling in the Great Lakes with that of Republican opponent Ron Johnson, who's "willing to hand over the Great Lakes to the oil companies, threatening Wisconsin's economy and a way of life for generations of Wisconsin families." Presumably, the nefarious Johnson would put a stop to that bland guitar music, too - maybe not such a bad thing.
"Just Say No" shows a cartoon of an ugly black blotch - the BP oil spill, one assumes - rising from the Gulf of Mexico to land gruesomely on Wisconsin. This is what will happen, the ad suggests, should Johnson get elected. When it aired, however, Johnson vehemently denied that he supported drilling in the Great Lakes.
Still, it's good to know that, should Feingold win another term, he'll fend off the roving black cartoon blotches from down south. Those things are scary.
Russ Feingold: 'Earned It'
So many current political ads fail at being clever that it's shocking to find a successful example.
Sen. Feingold opens "Earned It" sitting at a big table with military folks. "Russ Feingold's work to provide our soldiers with the support and health care they deserve has earned him the approval of Wisconsin veterans," a narrator says.
Next we see Feingold at a big table crowded with regular Wisconsin citizens. "Russ' fight to keep local jobs from being shipped overseas and create jobs here has earned him the respect of Wisconsin families and small businesses," the narrator continues.
The last segment begins with a close-up of Feingold eating at a restaurant. The narrator says, "And his stand against wasteful spending and automatic pay raises for members of Congress has earned him..."
The camera pulls back to show Feingold at a big table, this time by himself. The narrator delivers the punchline:
"...a lot of lonely lunches in Washington."
The joke is expertly set up, and the understated tone makes the message even stronger. It conveys the sense that Feingold doesn't have to be shrill about his 18-year Senate record; he simply has to remind voters of his accomplishments.
As a piece of TV, I'll take this over all the coarse attack ads we've been seeing, some of them by Feingold himself.
Tom Barrett: 'Fact or Fiction'
Scott Walker: 'Lies'
As Election Day approaches, Wisconsin is beginning to wonder what life would be like under its two choices for governor: Democrat Tom Barrett or Republican Scott Walker.
A set of ads offers a clue.
Barrett's "Fact or Fiction" pictures him in a green field as a guitar gently strums on the soundtrack. Barrett addresses the camera in shirtsleeves. "When I watch all the negative ads against me on TV," he says with a folksy chuckle, "I have to ask myself, 'Who is that guy?'"
Barrett goes on to represent his views in a low-key voice: cutting wasteful spending, fighting for jobs, etc. The camera moves in for a close-up on this gray-haired, smiling, kindly-looking man as the guitar strikes a hopeful major chord.
Scott Walker's insanely cacophonous "Lies" is a response to the Barrett spot. A crashing sound bursts out of the soundtrack, followed by crackling fire. The screen turns fiery orange, and smoke rises over the words "Liar Liar Pants on Fire." A sneering narrator quotes from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, accusing another Barrett ad of being misleading.
Negative words fly across the screen as a siren blares: "Forgery." "Phony." "Fake." "Distortion." The ad ends in a dissonant polyphony of buzzer noises, honking, minor chords and derisive comments from the narrator. The smoke just keeps rising.
Auntie Em, please take me back to the Wisconsin with the green field and gentle guitar music!
Scott Walker: 'Fighter'
In this ad, Walker accuses Democratic rival Barrett of "throwing punches at me." He puts on a pair of boxing gloves and vows to "go the distance as your next governor."
The problem with this physical-attack imagery is that Barrett himself suffered a well-publicized physical attack last year at the Wisconsin State Fair. As he tried to help a woman protect her grandchild, an assailant bashed his mouth, face and hand with a metal object. Barrett required multiple surgeries, and his hand may never heal.
The Wisconsin Democratic Party called Walker's ad "tasteless," and it's hard to argue with that assessment. If you were running against a man who'd just been severely beaten, would you go on the air suggesting that you wanted to take a whack at him too?
If "tasteless" applies, so does "idiotic." Walker looks like a fool as he smacks his big red boxing gloves together and puts his hands on his hips like a would-be tough guy. Even worse, he pushes his chin forward, offering a perfect target for a knockout blow. No boxer ever "went the distance" with a chump move like that.
Tom Barrett: 'Madison on a Diet'
Here, Barrett tries to take a humorous approach to government spending in Wisconsin. "We all know that when it comes to spending, the politicians in Madison aren't counting their calories," he says, sitting in a diner. He shows a cartoon image of a tape measure sucking in the Capitol dome - an illustration of his plan to "put Madison and state government on a diet."
The scenario is corny, and Barrett's delivery falls flat. In the unfortunate coda, the diner's waitress asks him if he wants a slice of pie. "Sounds great," he says with no comic conviction whatsoever, "but I'm cuttin' back!"
If we need a bold, thoughtful politician to lead Wisconsin, Barrett might be our man. If we need a comedian to lead Wisconsin, we'd best look elsewhere.
Chad Lee: 'Time for a Change in Washington'
Lee, the Republican running for U.S. Representative in Wisconsin's 2nd Congressional District, is incensed by 2008's Emergency Economic Stabilization Act. "Congress gave $700 billion of our tax dollars to Wall Street while they allowed 90,000 small businesses to go bankrupt!" intones a narrator. Two evil, small-business-hating faces flash on the screen: that of Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Lee's Democratic opponent, Tammy Baldwin.
A few faces are missing, though: that of Republican President George W. Bush, Republican presidential candidate John McCain, Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner, and the many other prominent members of Lee's own party who supported the bailout. Lee portrays it as a Democratic scam when, in fact, it was a bipartisan effort to stave off financial disaster.
How exactly would Lee have averted a Great Depression in 2008 if he so hates the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act? No word. Instead, he poses amid sun-dappled trees in a beautifully pressed blue dress shirt. Clearly, he was too busy ironing to come up with an alternative plan for the financial collapse.
In the ad's last image, Lee strides through a wooded area, holding hands with some woman and smiling ecstatically. If 90,000 small businesses have indeed gone bankrupt, what's he so darn happy about?