The candidate: Republican Pete Hoekstra, who represented Michigan in the House of Representatives for 17 years, running unsuccessfully for governor in 2010. He's currently challenging Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow for a Michigan senate seat.
The ad: Known officially as "Debbie Spend it Now" and more notoriously as "Yellow Girl" the 30-second spot opens on what look like rice fields. (View ad below.) Backed by Chinese music, a young Asian woman bicycles up to the camera and begins thanking Hoekstra's opponent "Debbie Spend It Now" in broken English: "Debbie spend so much American money," says the apparently Chinese woman, portrayed by Lisa Chan, Miss Napa Valley 2012. "You borrow more and more from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs." Cut to Hoekstra, who approvingly dubs himself "Pete Spend It Not," and urges viewers to visit a website called Debbie Spend It Now (since removed) which details federal spending amid more stereotypical Chinese trappings. The ad was produced by Hollywood-based media firm Strategic Perceptions, Inc. also responsible for a infamous 2010 ad featuring demonic sheep.
The ad buy: Hoekstra reportedly paid $150,000 to air the ad in Michigan on Feb. 5 during the Super Bowl and for two additional weeks on Michigan cable shows targeting Republicans.
The strategy: Though ostensibly criticizing Stabenow's allegedly reckless spending record (though Hoekstra himself voted for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, for example), the ad plays on paranoia-inducing Chinese stereotypes, linking Stabenow to persistent fears that America is being outwitted by China. James Fallows at The Atlantic goes further, arguing that the ads imagery, far from evoking industrial China, conjures Vietnam. The ad, says Fallows, is a "visual dog-whistle, for those Americans who, either through experience or through Apocalypse Now-style imagery, associate smiling-but-deceptive Asians in a rice-paddy setting with previous American sorrow."
The reaction: The despicable, disturbing ad was widely and promptly condemned by members of both parties, and inspired biting spoof ads. Michael Yaki, former aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, called Hoekstra's ad blatantly racist. Meanwhile, National GOP consultant Mike Murphy dismissed it as really, really dumb. While Hoekstra claimed his intent was satirical, Kathy Barks Hoffman at The Associated Press reported that some feared the ad would retrigger anti-Asian discrimination in Michigan (where the smashing of foreign cars was a problem in the '80s).
The fallout: On Feb. 10, Hoekstra pulled both the ad and the associated website, replacing them with more neutral alternatives. Hoekstra's relatively poor showing in a Feb. 14 Public Policy Polling poll suggested that the ad had cost him support.