Everyone likes a good laugh, and when it comes to political campaigns, the use of humor can make the difference between a candidate getting noticed or getting left behind.
"It's actually a nice touch," said University of Hawaii professor and KITV4 political analyst Neal Milner. "I think by now people are tired of earnestness."
Gov. Neil Abercrombie's most recent television ad features him driving his familiar yellow checkered cab from past campaigns while wearing a palaka shirt and baseball cap. During the spot, two women acting as a fare talk about the progress they're seeing, from a new elementary school at Kapolei and workforce housing in Kakaako, to a turnaround in the local economy.
"Abercrombie is really doing it to say, 'Hey, remember me? This is the old guy, the old Abercrombie who used to drive the cab around and wear palaka-power shirts and get all these kinds of things done. That's who I still am,'" said Milner.
Other TV ads that have employed humor include one by Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui that makes light of the difficulty some have in pronouncing his name. The self-deprecating spot is a winner, according to public relations executive Barbra Pleadwell, a partner with communications company Hastings and Pleadwell.
"The Shan Tsutsui ad had a lot of us in the creative community talking because it was a bold move," said Pleadwell. "It's self-effacing and it's honest. I mean who hasn't mispronounced that name, even those of us who live here. It was brilliant on many levels."
Milner says some of the candidates who are using humor in the final weeks before the Aug. 9 primary have already established themselves as serious choices, and the ads are meant to increase name recognition.
State Senate President Donna Mercado Kim's TV ad employs the 1950s hit by Ritchie Valens "Oh Donna," while state Rep. K. Mark Takai uses his son and daughter as comedic relief. In the spot, Takai's kids cut him off as he's about to speak. Both candidates are competing in the Democratic primary for Hawaii's First Congressional District.
"This is still about getting people to recognize candidates who are really not that familiar in terms of the office that they're running for," Milner explained. "So, you get lots of name stuff in there, lots of family stuff in there, and lots of catchy stuff like the old 'Donna' jingle."
A majority of the local candidates who are utilizing humor are also the ones with the largest war chests. Pleadwell says a well-done political ad can cost as much as $35,000 to produce, and that doesn't include the cost of airing the spots on television. Abercrombie's main Democratic rival, state Sen. David Ige, has raised $322,000 while the incumbent governor has brought in more than $4.3 million.
"If you have the credibility and you have a very strong backing and you have a great war chest, it doesn't hurt to throw one of these in," said Pleadwell. "Having said that, if you don't have a war chest and possibly you don't have a lot to lose, then why not hire a great creative team to make this happen for you? Because at least you'll be memorable."
Milner doesn't expect any of the candidates who are implementing humor in their most recent TV spots to revert back to attack mode. With tens of thousands of absentee ballots already in the mail, going negative could do more harm than good.
"This is kind of the last shot," said Milner. "You're not going to see any of these people doing heavy artillery (or) negative ads."