Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert got a new Democratic challenger this week, and the roster of attention-grabbing political ads from Colorado candidates got a new entry.
Political newcomer and business owner Alex Walker, who was raised in the Denver suburbs and in the Vail Valley by Republican parents and holds a mechanical engineering degree from Stanford University, formally announced his candidacy in the crowded 3rd Congressional District Democratic primary on Feb. 23 with a 2-minute video that quickly went viral.
The slickly produced video, described by one online publication as “perhaps the most nauseating campaign ad ever,” depicts a literal turd storm that sends the inhabitants of an idyllic small town fleeing. There’s also a picnic table spoiled by projectile vomiting and an actress portraying Boebert who sprays what appears to be raw sewage all over a congressional office.
It could be the first political ad in Colorado that should come with a parental advisory label for explicit content.
Into this scatological setting strolls a serious-looking Walker, who proceeds to hand out towels to soiled actors and condemns the political nonsense metaphorically depicted in his commercial with explicit language that would prevent the ad from being shown on broadcast television.
“We are real Coloradans. We deserve a living wage, small government that actually works and freedom of choice,” he says, adding, “Instead, we have BS,” though he doesn’t abbreviate the word.
“Don’t you ever wonder where it’s all coming from? Colorado needs a bull, not a” — again, Walker uses a word the owners of this publication would frown upon seeing in print, and then he drops another expletive when he states how very emphatically he approves this message.
Whether Walker’s introductory video will be remembered as primarily buzzworthy or cringeworthy remains to be seen. As does whether Walker will be greeted by voters as the pulls-no-punches antidote to Boebert or merely the latest wanna-be, big-league candidate who stepped in it.
The comments from YouTube users — not generally known as a prim or prudish bunch — mostly panned the campaign ad.
“When you consider all the people required to make an ad like this (the screenwriter, director, producer, cameraman, lighting, sound engineer, makeup and wardrobe, cast, etc.). And yet not one thought to say, ‘This is an absolutely brutal premise for an ad. This will likely sink your campaign.’ Not one,” wrote one user. “Walker needs to stop surrounding himself with nodding lapdogs and allow people to be honest with him. They’re not. If they were, this ad would not exist.”
A YouTube user who produces animated videos replied: “Unbelievable that a large group of adults came together and agreed that this video would convince people of the competence and intelligence of the person behind it. Simply stunning.”
Another user responded bluntly: “This just reinforces my perception that 3/4 of Colorado is high.”
The ad certainly got attention, racking up more than 250,000 views within 36 hours of its debut — strong numbers for a political video — and landing coverage in publications as far flung as San Jose, Calif., New York City and London.
Some of the articles included warnings against playing the video in polite company or watching it while eating.
Political writers found themselves reaching for euphemisms for the common four-letter word Walker freely spouts in the video, as well as for a derivative synonymous with hogwash, though it implicates a different barnyard animal. One reporter refers repeatedly to cow pies, though astute online critics point out that the flying feces depicted in the ad look nothing like what you’ll find in a pasture.
Walker, who describes himself as a “gay moderate who believes in small government, personal freedom and human rights,” said in his announcement release that he supports policies that are “built on reason, not party nonsense.”
“Some lean left. Some lean right,” he added. “None of them involve sex cults or pizza.” The latter are references to fringe conspiracy theories that have gone mainstream in recent years, including the Q-Anon movement, which was embraced by Boebert early in her first campaign before she later denounced it.
Noting that his family lost his brother to suicide a decade ago, Walker said that part of the reason he’s running “is to honor my brother and everyone left behind by elected officials who don’t do their jobs. I’m 100% committed to stopping Boebert from continuing her endless cycle of attacking people because of who they are or what they look like. She doesn’t represent who we are, and I’m ready to work with both Republicans and Democrats to ensure 3rd District residents see an improvement in their day-to-day lives.”
Some shocking political ads can do more than simply shock, two veteran political strategists told Colorado Politics, though they added that Walker’s dung-fest might not be one of them.
“It’s all sizzle and no steak,” GOP consultant Tyler Sandberg said. “I don’t think he creates any value for an actual candidacy. This is, unfortunately, why people don’t like politics.”
He said campaigns sometimes mistakenly believe in the value of getting attention for attention’s sake, but that isn’t how it works.
“You can’t just be shocking for the sake of being shocking — it ultimately has to drive the brand narrative,” he said. “All you remember with this is crap everywhere, and you aren’t left with a memorable message of any kind.”
Sandberg compared the ad unfavorably with a famous campaign ad run by Republican Joni Ernst in her 2014 run for an open U.S. Senate seat in Iowa.
“I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm,” Ernst says. “So when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.” Over images of squirming hogs, Ernst delivers the punchline: “I approved this message, because Washington’s full of big spenders. Let’s make ’em squeal.”
The ad, aired for just $9,000, propelled the underdog to a primary win and the Senate, where she’s serving her second term.
Ernst’s ad — described by some as “ballsy” — drew coverage at least as widespread as Walker’s, but Sandberg said it left people with a clear message about the candidate.
“Joni makes them squeal and says she’ll be cutting government, and it drives home her authentic rural background,” Sandberg said. “Walker never transitions to something that matters. Anti-Boebert also has to be pro-Alex Walker, but there’s nothing in there that would make you want to vote for him.”
Sandberg noted that ads with shock-value can help distinguish a candidate in a wide field of unknowns, which is what the Democrats who make the primary in Boebert’s district could be facing. “But so far,” he added, “his brand will be the guy who took the poop joke too far.”
At last count, 13 Democrats, two Republicans and one independent candidate had launched campaigns against Boebert, though several of the Democrats later withdrew, leaving the number in the race as precinct caucuses approach at nine.
“It’s impossible to say it wasn’t an interesting ad, which it was,” Democratic consultant Ian Silverii said. “But it grossed me out. I have a 2-year-old, so I deal with plenty of poop all the time, and it still grossed me out.”
He added that he’s curious to find out if Walker’s campaign is real or if it’s “some kind of performance art.”
“Is it a circus act, is it a novelty? Where do you then go from there? Do you then do the serious ad about water policy? Now he’s the poop guy. He could be pigeon-holed as the poop guy.”
It’s a different breed of ad than the memorable, attention-getting ads that helped shape Coloradans’ perceptions of John Hickenlooper, the quirky barkeep who didn’t own a fancy suit but would go to great lengths — from jumping out of an airplane to taking a shower with his clothes on — to drive a point home.
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper will go to great lengths (and heights) to promote fiscal responsibility in this 2005 ad.
Fueled in part by generally positive reaction to his ads, Hickenlooper won election twice as Denver’s mayor, twice as Colorado’s governor and last year unseated an incumbent U.S. senator.
The consultants struggled to recall Colorado political ads to compare with Walker’s, though both mentioned a jaw-dropping video released in 2018 by Democratic congressional candidate Levi Tillemann, who doused himself in the face with pepper spray on camera in an attempt to demonstrate a school safety proposal.
Like Sandberg, Silverii stressed that over-the-top political videos only succeed beyond attracting attention if they convert that attention into something tangible that benefits the campaign — positive news coverage, volunteer sign-ups, donations that total more than the cost of producing and airing the ad.
The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding — or, in Walker’s case, in the pudding-like substance that has so far defined his candidacy.