ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In the presidential advertising race, buzz is worth money. And no ads have been buzzier than Herman Cain's - for better and worse. Most polls say Cain is now the GOP frontrunner. His ads have been the subject of conjecture, parody and head-scratching. NPR's Brian Naylor reports they are as unconventional as the campaign itself.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
MARK BLOCK: I really believe that Herman Cain will put united back in the United States of America, 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. We need you to get involved because together we can do this. We can take this country back.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) I am America...
NAYLOR: At which point Block takes a drag off his cigarette and exhales smoke at the camera. Cut to a tight close-up of Cain, who ever so slowly smiles. It's unconventional, to say the least. No one smokes on TV anymore, there are few apparent production effects in the ad, and there's Cain's mysterious smile. But Mark McKinnon, who produced ads for the campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain, says that unconventionality is the point.
MARK MCKINNON: That may be the brilliance of it, that it captures our attention; it makes us really wonder. But at the end of the day, as different and 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, why not take a different approach? And that's kind of the whole Herman Cain message: Why not something different? Why not Herman Cain?
NAYLOR: Cain is running a mostly conventional ad on the radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
HERMAN CAIN: Nine-nine-nine means jobs, jobs, jobs. I'm Herman Cain, a candidate for president, and I approved this message - but Obama doesn't.
NAYLOR: As normal as that ad sounds, another video the campaign has produced verges on the surreal. It's filmed in the style of a movie Western. Actor Nick Searcy climbs off a horse with a bunch of yellow flowers in his hand. He's confronted by two unsavory-looking characters - one is African-American - who pass a whiskey bottle between them and spit tobacco.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Those are some pretty flowers you got there, mister.
NICK SEARCY: (As character) Um-hum.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Pretty yellow flower.
SEARCY: (As character) Well, I'm glad you like them.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) I'll bet that you're as yellow as those flowers right there.
SEARCY: (As character) Why does it always got to be about color? What are you guys, liberals?
NAYLOR: Punches are thrown, and then Searcy steps out of character and, well, you just kind of have to see it. But it ends like the smoking ad with the same footage of Herman Cain and his slow smile. Mark McKinnon.
MCKINNON: It sort of gives you the impression of, you know, Herman Cain knows something you don't know. And you know, keep your eye on this guy.
NAYLOR: We asked the Cain campaign to provide someone to talk about their ads, to no avail. Whatever their intent, the ads would seem to be working. People may be scratching their heads, perhaps, but they're talking about Herman Cain - and watching. The smoking ad has been viewed nearly a million times on YouTube. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.