WASHINGTON — It's a jungle out there in political television advertising, what with parrots, chicks, dogs and pigs taking turns in commercials that bite and scratch in a way no nonpartisan pet ever would.
"You can keep it," squawked a parrot in a Club for Growth Action ad that ran earlier in the year in Arkansas. It was meant to ridicule President Barack Obama and Sen. Mark Pryor's now-abandoned claims that state residents could keep their health insurance if they liked it.
In Georgia, Democratic Rep. John Barrow unleashed a golden retriever in the first television ad of his campaign for a new term. "Somebody once said if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog," he says.
"Well, I wouldn't wish Washington on a dog," Barrow adds, throwing a tennis ball to be fetched. By the time he has finished touting his own record and criticizing other lawmakers, the dog and ball are back. "She works harder than most of them do," he says, comparing the pet favorably to the men and women he has known in Congress for a decade.
Whether peddling candidates or commercial products, the goal of commercials is to gain as wide and attentive a viewership as possible. Anything that gets a longer look is prized.
"Animals can be a great way to get the viewer to stop skipping through the commercials on their DVR or delay a trip to the fridge during a commercial break," said Ali Lapp, the executive director of the House Majority PAC, a group that backs Democrats in House campaigns.
Not only can animals be cute or cuddly, but they often trigger predictable emotions among humans. Pork, tasty when eaten, produces indigestion in the form of government spending.
Nor are animals new to political advertising.
Three decades ago, in his re-election campaign, President Ronald Reagan aired a commercial about a bear, a readily recognizable symbol for the Soviet Union.
"There is a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don't see it at all," the announcer said as a grizzly lumbered across the landscape. The commercial's strong suggestion was that Reagan's Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale, was among those unable to see the danger posed by a rival superpower.
No bears, grizzly or teddy, have wandered from the woods onto television screens yet this campaign season.
But Joni Ernst won the Republican Senate nomination in Iowa after airing a commercial in which she said she grew up on a farm and can castrate hogs. "So when I get to Washington, I'll know how to cut pork," she says as a pig squeals in the background.
Making sure the point isn't missed, she says of the big spenders, "Let's make 'em squeal," a command the pigs are heard to obey promptly.
Rival Bruce Braley, a Democratic congressman, looked around the political barnyard and figured chicks could handle his rival's pigs.
"When Joni Ernst had a chance to do something in Iowa, we didn't hear a peep," the announcer says as a small, brown-eyed chick appears on screen, chirping at first, then growing more animated as the political accusations escalate.
Fortunately for the Club for Growth, parrots are able to do more than chirp or squeal.
Enter a blue parrot with yellow and green markings that goes by the name of Harley and is intent on mocking Obama and Pryor.
"We will keep this promise. If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor. Period," Obama says in remarks made as he was seeking passage of his health care legislation.
Squawks the parrot: "Keep your doctor."
Obama, again: "If you like the plan you have, you can keep it."
Parrot: "You can keep it."
Pryor says: "What's the bottom line. Are we going to be able to stick with our plan? The answer is yes."
Parrot: "Keep your plan."
"Tell Sen. Pryor to stop parroting President Obama," says the announcer.