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The first presidential caucus and primary voting is a bit more than two months away, and GOP candidates are starting to put up ads on TV and the Internet. No ads have gotten more buzz than those of Herman Cain, who most polls say is the GOP front-runner. They've been the subject of a great deal of conjecture, parody and head-scratching, and are as unconventional as the campaign itself.
The most famous of Cain's ads is all over the Internet. It features the candidate's chief of staff, Mark Block, standing outside a building and talking directly to the camera.
"I really believe that Herman Cain will put 'united' back in the United States of America," he says, "and if I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be here. We've run a campaign like nobody's ever seen, but then America's never seen a candidate like Herman Cain."
In the ad, Block takes a drag off his cigarette and exhales smoke at the camera. Then the video cuts to a tight close-up of Cain, who smiles ever so slowly. The ad is unconventional to say the least. No one smokes on TV anymore, there are few apparent production effects in the ad, and then there's Cain's mysterious smile.
Mark McKinnon, who produced ads for the campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain, says that unconventionality is the point.
"That may be the brilliance of it," he says, "that it captures our attention; it makes us really wonder. But at the end of the day, as different, as unconventional and as weird as they are, there is a fundamental message in them that says, 'I'm different. I've got a different approach. People are sick of everything they've seen before. They're sick of all the slick advertising that they've seen from everybody else, so why not take a different approach?' And that's kind of the whole Herman Cain message: Why not something different? Why not Herman Cain?"
If Cain's smoking campaign manager ad was different, another spot the campaign has produced verges on the surreal. The ad is filmed in the style of a Western movie. Actor Nick Searcy climbs off a horse with a bunch of yellow flowers in his hand. He's confronted by two unsavory-looking characters who pass a whiskey bottle between them and spit tobacco. One of the men is black.
The men joke about Searcy's "pretty yellow flowers."
"I'll bet that you're as yellow as those flowers right there," one says.
"Why does it always got to be about color?" Searcy's character says. "What are you guys, liberals?"
Punches are thrown, and then Searcy steps out of character and gives a monologue about Cain's leadership. It ends like the smoking ad, with the same footage of Cain and his slow smile.
"It sort of gives you the impression that Herman Cain knows something you don't know," McKinnon says. "Keep your eye on this guy."
The Cain campaign would not provide someone to talk to NPR about the ads.
Whatever their intent, the ads seem to be working. People may be scratching their heads, but they are talking about Cain — and watching; the smoking ad has been viewed nearly a million times on YouTube.