A more serious look at the Demon Sheep political ad

In the aftermath of the release of Carly Fiorina’s infamous “Demon Sheep” ad, the average Republican voter in California’s Senate primary faces a number of questions. However, the two questions that seems to subsume them are “What the hell were they thinking?” and “What the hell happened?” Naturally, the first question seems most intuitive, given that everyone from Rachel Maddow to National Review have joined in mocking the ad for its over-the-top portrayal of Tom Campbell’s ideological indiscretions, its Ed Woodian costuming/special effects, and its extremely dubious choice of message (fiscal conservatives are sheep). In response, the Fiorina campaign seems to be unrepentant, pledging even more over-the-top videos going after the competition. And speaking of competition, Fiorina’s rival Chuck DeVore has started a website devoted to the removal of demon sheep from public discourse – a website which boasts several (equally silly) pictures and statements from DeVore himself.

Which leads neatly into the second question – “what the hell happened?” Specifically, how did our political culture, and our culture more generally, change to the extent that a demon sheep ad could even be vetted by a major political campaign, let alone filmed and aired? This is a serious question, given that possibly no ad since Lyndon Baines Johnson’s infamous “Daisy ad” accusing Barry Goldwater of supporting nuclear war in 1964 has received this much press play, or this much condemnation. But whereas the “Daisy ad” was condemned for being unrestrainedly below-the-belt, the “Demon sheep” ad has been equally condemned for being unrestrainedly silly, both of which are accusations which neither the Johnson campaign of ’64 nor the Fiorina campaign of ’10 seem in any hurry to refute, nor apologize for.

To more convention-minded political commentators, this might seem bewildering. However, in the era of the viral video and the massive perpetual exposure machine known as Youtube, it seems to have been only a matter of time before an ad such as this was created. In this respect (though hopefully in no others), California is definitely back on the cutting edge of politics, for what the “Demon sheep” ad and its attendant responses from rivals shows, is that whether we like it or not, the distinctive symbols and communications strategies of internet subculture have penetrated our political discourse.

Consider, for instance, the derisive reaction to the ad itself. Most commentators seem to count this as a strike against the Fiorina campaign, on the theory that anything which inspires mockery on such a massive scale must necessarily be bad PR. However, as anyone who has spent any time at all studying the genealogy of internet cultural references knows, this is hardly a foregone conclusion. This is because, for most people, the internet is something of a combination of a glorified post office, supermarket and newsstand all rolled into one. For these gentle souls, the occasional trip to Amazon, Yahoo Mail or Wikipedia is as far as they will ever penetrate into the internet’s distinctive offerings.

Yet, given that the “Demon sheep” ad made its debut on Youtube, it’s doubtful that this group was the intended audience for its message. Rather, the ad’s semi-surreal imagery and Monty Python-esque humor were clearly intended for a different breed of internet user – the type for whom the internet is a community and a culture, with its own symbols and shared points of reference, known in the vernacular as “memes.” To the average internet user, many of these shared points of reference are at best bizarrely funny and at worst incomprehensible. Yet this has not stopped the Fiorina or the DeVore campaign from attempting to tap into them. For instance, one banner on the Chuck DeVore demon sheep parody site bears the message “all your sheeps is belong to us” with a picture of the demon sheep’s head superimposed on a pixellated backdrop. To most people, this might come off as simply poor proofreading, given the usage of a singular verb to describe a plural noun, but it actually invokes a fairly well-known internet meme which started when some users discovered a poorly translated message in the 80’s era video game Zero Wing and turned it into a running joke. And as memes go, this is one of the most mainstream.

Given this surreal side to the internet, it is fairly clear that what looks like a disastrous misfire on the part of the Fiorina campaign was actually a deliberate and calculated step to insinuate themselves into the world of internet subculture by creating a new and explicitly political meme – namely, the demon sheep. Naturally, the question is, why bother invoking memes at all, given the limited audience they can reach? The answer is complex, but perhaps a simple way of explaining it would be to point readers’ attention to the Ron Paul campaign. Paul, an otherwise longshot candidate, experienced his upsurge in donations and exposure (not to mention his media-bewildering consistent wins in post-debate internet polls) around the time that a leading website in the internet subculture crowned him “king of the internet.” Given this capacity for incredible grassroots power, it is only natural that politicians of all stripes should strive to become viral memes, for with the exposure comes a unique brand of opportunity.