When Julia Louis-Dreyfus, star of HBO’s political comedy Veep, took the stage at the Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept. 18, she had something to get off her chest as she accepted the win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.
“I’d also like to take this opportunity to personally apologize for the current political climate,” Louis-Dreyfus joked. “I think that Veep has torn down the wall between comedy and politics. Our show started out as a political satire, but it now feels more like a sobering documentary.”
Last week, the Reporters’ Lab’s Duke Ad Watch team found that to be true — perhaps truer than Louis-Dreyfus intended.
Stewart Mills, a Republican vying for the 8th Congressional District seat in Minnesota, released a campaign ad on Sept. 14 that depicts Mills as an outdoorsman. In a voiceover, Mills vows to “clear out the dead wood” in Congress and “chop career politicians down to size” — ha, ha — as he demonstrates his wood-chopping skills by splitting stump after stump with an axe.
Just a few months before Mills’ commercial hit the airwaves, a very similar campaign ad launched — on Veep.
In the HBO series’ fifth season, Jonah Ryan — an irksome White House liaison who so badly wants in on Washington, D.C.’s inner circle — runs for Congress in New Hampshire. One of his campaign spots is eerily comparable to Mills’ ad, showing him chopping wood and vowing to change the state of politics. (Watch it below.)
Given that Veep’s ad debuted long before Mills’ real-life commercial, it seems likely that the Republican took some inspiration from Jonah, right down to his criticism of “D.C. insiders.”
But maybe not. According to Veep showrunner David Mandel, this may not be a cut-and-dry case of life imitating art. In fact, when Mandel and the series’ writers began brainstorming the ideal TV spot for Jonah, they intentionally sought out overused ad tropes that would fit in well with Jonah’s brand.
“Our ad was a wonderful amalgam of terrible campaign ads and clichés,” Mandel said. “We thought the idea of Jonah, a true creature of the Beltway, selling himself as an outdoorsman would be spot-on perfect. I honestly think [Mills] is simply running plays from the same terrible playbook we were trying to mock.”
And Mandel isn’t just being humble. The producer — who had first seen Mills’ ad via a tweet from Jonah’s portrayer, Timothy Simons — admits that Jonah isn’t a character worth emulating, regardless of whether Veep had an effect on Mills’ campaign.
“I was just amazed,” Mandel said. “I can’t imagine that anyone who watches Veep saw Jonah’s ad and thought, ‘That’s what I should do when I run for office.’ Nobody ever thinks, ‘I want to be more like Jonah.’”
Our Duke Ad Watch has found this is part of a larger trend — “manly” campaign ads, many of which feature political hopefuls wielding guns, shooting guns and otherwise earning their NRA membership cards.
There’s Eric Greitens, Republican nominee for Missouri governor, who contributed to this year’s masculinity trend back in June with his “Taking Aim” ad, which features Greitens firing shots from a rifle into a field.
Then came Kansas State Senator Tom Holland, a Democrat up for re-election this year. And, as fate would have it, he’s also “Taking Aim” at his political rivals, and the commercial shows Holland wielding a shotgun while discussing his policy ideas.
But perhaps no “manly” campaign ad has made more waves this election season than “Background Checks,” from Democratic Missouri Senate hopeful Jason Kander. In an attempt to take, uh, shots at Senator Roy Blunt, Kander assembles an AR-15 rifle while blindfolded. As he puts the gun together, he discusses his support for the Second Amendment and background checks on firearm purchases. (Blunt has since responded with an attack ad of his own.)
Of course, it remains to be seen if these candidates’ macho promises will have any effect on the votes come Election Day. But one thing is certain: Jonah Ryan, fictional though he may be, would fit right in with this year’s candidates.