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Patrick Hruby

Wacky Political Ad Watch: Herman Cain's Rabbit Hunter

Getting a little crazy in the online attention economy

Pity poor Herman Cain.Once upon a time -- like, a few short months ago -- he was the belle of the GOP presidential nominating ball. The charismatic wild card whose utter, Palin-esque lack of Commander-in-Chief preparedness -- can he see Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan from his house? -- was matched only by his seemingly lucrative future as a motivational speaker, book hawker and eventual Fox News talk show host.

And now?

He's yesterday's newspapers (or status update, for younger readers who have no idea why news and paper would ever appear in the same sentence, let alone the same word). Cain had a brief, glorious run as the Republican primary's leading purveyor of he-said-WHAT? nuttiness; in the here and now, Rick Santorum and the Mitt Romney advisor who made a perfectly reasonable Etch-a-Sketch analogy have cornered the ephemeral attention market. Which, in turn, explains Cain's latest online ad.

At this point, you've likely seen the spot, which almost qualifies as Dadaist: a little girl places a live rabbit in a catapult. The rabbit is shot into the sky, then blasted into a "Gears of War"-style gib by a rifle-wielding man in a suit. (Surprisingly, the rabbit is not wearing a hoodie, which must come as a hell of a shock to Geraldo). "This is small business under the current tax code," says the girl. "Any questions?"

Actually, yes: WTF?

Ostensibly, the spot is intended to alert readers to Cain's website -- is it still 2009? Can we all buy Apple stock? Tell Disney to kibosh "John Carter" before it's too late? -- which is part of the former pizza executive's post-campaign suspension Solutions Revolution. In reality, though, it's clear this ad is pitching the same product Herman Cain has been pitching from the start: namely, Herman Cain.

Ours is an age of consumer choice and cultural clutter. Toothpaste, cable channels, social media feeds. The next new shiny thing. The first step in selling anything is grabbing the public's attention; the next is holding it long enough to close the deal; unless you're Kim Kardashian, this is a tough trick to pull off. (Remember Linsanity? Yeah, me neither). Cain's ad isn't Ridley Scott-sellin'-beige-plastic-box-word-processors-brilliant. But it's smart. It's clearly a spiritual successor to his infamous "Smoking Man" spot.

As I wrote in a Washington Times feature piece a little while back,
wacky online political ads are designed to accomplish two primary goals: (a) create buzz and go viral, perhaps breaking into the coveted What's Trending Online (a.k.a. the news America actually cares about) segment on the "Today" show; (b) create more buzz by ginning up faux-outrage and insta-controversy, usually by trolling something or someone.

On both counts, I think the new Cain spot is a qualified success. It managed to get temporarily pulled from YouTube, trolled PETA -- an organization that is hardly unfamiliar with acting out to get noticed -- and best of all, briefly reinserted Cain into a national conversation that long had moved on to more pressing matters. Such as Tim Tebow, New York Jet.

As such, Cain deserves a tip of the fedora. And maybe a creepy, overlong grin-smirk. Well played. Personally, I think the ad could have used more Donald Trump. On the other hand, there's always tomorrow.