Israelis Find Laughs in Election as Ads Use Humor to Lure Votes

A young Israeli couple heading out for the evening opens the door for the babysitter and finds Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “You got a Bibi-sitter,” Netanyahu says, playing on his popular nickname.

In the ad, which portrays Netanyahu as more qualified than his political rivals to safeguard Israel’s children, the prime minister ends up sitting on a couch in front of the television with a bowl of popcorn.

“In all the years I’ve known Bibi, I’ve never seen him use self-deprecating humor in that way,” says pollster Mitchell Barak, who has worked with Netanyahu and one of his former key campaign advisers, Republican strategist Arthur Finkelstein.

The attempt at humor is striking considering the issues at stake. Israelis are heading to the ballot as the region is set aflame by a wave of violent Islamic extremism, Palestinian peace talks stall and worsening tensions with Washington over Iran’s nuclear program.

Recent polls show Netanyahu’s Likud and Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union party running near-even in the race for parliamentary seats, with Netanyahu appearing better positioned to cobble together enough factions in a new ruling coalition.

With security at the center of his campaign, the prime minister has sought to portray his rivals as weak. In the Bibi-sitter ad, he asks the young couple if they would prefer to hire Herzog. “No, no, no!” the husband objects. “The kids would have to babysit him!”

Begging Strangers

The Zionist Union, in one of its Web ads, plays on a government report criticizing the Netanyahu household for excessive spending and shows young people begging strangers on the street to donate to the prime minister and his wife, Sara.

“The primary medium today for advancing messages is Internet sites such as YouTube and Facebook, and the best way for a clip to go viral is by being funny,” says Gadi Wolfsfeld, political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Humor may also boost voter participation rates that fell to 64 percent in 2013 from 79 percent in 1999, says Dahlia Scheindlin, who has worked with Herzog’s party on past campaigns alongside Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg.

“There is a feeling among politicians you need to grab voter attention to pull them back in, and one way to do that is make them laugh,” Scheindlin says.

Reaching for laughs, by using comedy or stand-up comedians, hasn’t always worked for Israeli campaigns. It notoriously backfired for Labor leader Shimon Peres in 1981, when comic Dudu Topaz used a derogatory term for Israelis of Middle Eastern descent to counter hecklers at a campaign event, spurring an ethnic backlash.

Doing ‘Disservice’

Not every campaign professional is convinced that clever Web clips are effective vote-getters, especially in a relatively small nation of about 8 million.

“Online ads are doing campaigns a disservice and distracting them from their real target,” says Barak. “They are confusing likes, and shares, with attracting real votes.”

Netanyahu isn’t the only one offering comic relief.

A clip for Jewish Home, which advocates more Jewish settlement in the West Bank and opposes a Palestinian state, shows leader Naftali Bennett in a false beard, glasses and flannel shirt. In the get-up, intended as a caricature of an Israeli leftist, he wanders the streets apologizing for things that aren’t his fault: spilling coffee, a traffic accident. When he tires of the masquerade, he sheds the costume. “From now on,” he says, “We stop apologizing.”

Poking Fun

In its Web ad, the self-described leftist Meretz party pokes fun at its elitist image as candidates dance merrily in a mock wedding video, singing out: “Don’t despair and don’t be ashamed...We’ll rebuild a wonderful country here.”

Israeli politicians are “even more willing than their counterparts in the U.S. and the U.K. to poke fun at themselves and others, reflecting the fact that we have a more informal society here,” says Wolfsfeld. That informality can also be seen in the ubiquity of nicknames: Bibi for Netanyahu and Bougie for Herzog.

In this campaign, digital advertising has, for the first time, overshadowed more traditional televised political commercials shown in concentrated viewing blocs starting two weeks before voting, making them easy to miss.

According to analyst Scheindlin, “many research surveys show the biggest motivator for voter turn-out is personal contact. So while there’s nothing wrong in using the Internet to campaign, it’s no substitute for the candidates getting out into the field.”