South Dakota’s Jeff Barth on His Viral Campaign Ad, Riding Animals, and Chess

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Yesterday, the Internet met — and kind of fell in love with — Jeff Barth, the commissioner of South Dakota's Minnehaha County and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for South Dakota's lone, at-large congressional seat, which is currently occupied by freshman Republican Kristi Noem. Barth's five-minute web ad is charmingly low-budget yet totally surreal: While walking along a forest path, the would-be congressman regales us with odd factoids about his life — he learned chess in Iceland, once rode an ostrich, and raised daughters with straight teeth — supplemented by props placed strategically along the trail and a few computer-generated graphics. We talked to Barth by phone today about the strategy behind the ad, which other animals he'd like to ride, and chess.

When you decided to make this ad, did you just say to yourself, “We need to do something the Internet will love.”
Yes.

How did you come up with the concept?
Well, my media guy — John Fiksdal over at Media One, who does my production stuff — he had seen some stuff on the Internet and he thought he could try to parody that and make it into a unique political event. You know, in politics, there's so much of the same stuff — you get a postcard, you get a robocall, you get a TV spot. We thought — my opponent has six times as much money as me, so I had to find a way to make my money count. That's what I tried. So far, so good.

Is that your trail?
It's in the county, but it's a city ski hill. So they have hiking trials in the summertime, and in the winter, they have a ski lift, and people snowboard and ski.

I really liked the hat you're wearing in the ad, which just says your last name on it in big letters. Is that something you wear on a regular basis or did you make that for the commercial?
We made that for the commercial.

Are you selling those now?
I've been asked to sell them. I just had a couple of people e-mail me saying, "Please start selling these on the Internet."

Are you going to?
Well, I have to talk to my media peeps.

I understand most of the props on the trail, but I was a little confused by the mannequin. Are you calling Kristi Noem a poser?
No, I actually say, basically, as I walk by her that she's "one of them," that is, one of those folks in D.C. that are obstructing and blocking progress in our country. And she's recognized as being a fairly attractive woman, slim and trim and all that, so, that's what we did.

Learning chess in Iceland, riding an ostrich — why even mention these things?
Well, again, with my creative assistant, my friend John, he kind of interviewed me and asked me about my experiences. And I couldn't really picture it, but he had a picture in his mind of how he wanted it to be, and you know, gosh darn it, when we put it together, it kind of works.

Have you ridden any other animals?
Oh yeah, I mean, horses, and I think I rode pigs when I was at my uncle's farm, and, you know, normal stuff.

If you could ride any animal, what would it be?
Oh, um. Boy that's a question I didn't expect. I suppose I wouldn't mind riding a camel.

It’s a quirky ad. Are you worried that, despite all the attention it’s getting you, South Dakota voters won’t take you seriously?
Of course. At the same time, this isn't the end of my campaign. This is just the middle of it. Two weeks ago, my Democratic opponent came out against gay marriage, and I had what I regarded as a fairly tepid endorsement of it. I said if I had to vote on it I'd vote yes. And ever since then he's been kind of rocked by that, and so this was actually a second event in our campaign. But I have some other little things I'm hoping to come up with in the near future.

Are you going to do more viral-type ads?
Well this one actually took quite a while to do because, originally, after we wrote the script and planned the props, we went out to film it along the Missouri River and it was too muddy. So we almost gave up. And it was about three weeks later we decided to give it a try again. And I can honestly say I originally had the whole script memorized and that faded on me somewhat, and because of the campaign I did not have time to keep working on it. There's always getting another mailing out or talking on the phone, whatever. So we did it in little segments where I could remember things for certain periods of time, and I still ad-libbed a little too much. My wife hates to dance with me because I cant stick with the 1-2-3-4; I've got to the 1-2-3-3-and-a-half-4. I let the music speak through my body, if you know what I mean.

So what did you ad lib in the ad?
Oh, I can't remember right now specifically, but I can look at it and say, "That wasn't the way we planned to say it." It went pretty well. I'm very happy with the way it came out, and if I do get the Democratic nomination to run against Kristi Noem, I actually want to talk to my creative guy about maybe doing something in a canoe.

Why a canoe?
Well, you know, it's a similar thing where you go down the river or whatever, and you can keep chitchatting.

So you'd have props along the river?
Something like that has occurred to me anyway. I could tip over and say "Washington D.C. is all wet."

Have you experienced a fund-raising surge since the ad went viral?
Not really. A number of people today have given me small contributions. Overnight, last night, I got ten contributions on the Internet, totaling $130. That means they averaged $13 each. I suspect that those were Democrats as opposed to D.C. lobbyists.

What has been the reaction to your ad in South Dakota? Have you heard a lot about it?
I sure have. I've talked to lots of media people who are laughing their butts off. One way or the other, people are going to hear my name and sometimes that's all that counts in these primaries. Actually, about five weeks ago, one of the newspapers said we were running a stealth primary. But the fact is that my opponent and I have been out across the state campaigning — we just can't get the TV and the newspaper people to cover us. They're covering us now though.

You boasted of being a one-time state chess champion in the ad. Which chess piece are you, and which is Kristi Noem?
Oh, I think I'm a rook and she's a bishop.

Why?
Well, I'm sort of stout, and she's sort of slim. And a rook is considered more valuable than a bishop, and I think I'm that piece.