On first thought, one might expect that a kind of Darwinian mechanism operating between the press and presidential candidates these days would weed out all but two classes of political advertisements: the bland, anodyne type, and the dishonest, viciously negative type. A candidate would want to avoid even the faintest whiff of strangeness. After all, the press hounded Howard Dean from the campaign back in 2004 just for making a funny noise.

But that would be wrong.

To be sure, the 2008 presidential season had its share of bizarreness. (Remember Mike Gravel’s ad featuring him dropping a rock into a pond?) But the 2012 season has a bad case of The Strange, and not just for fringe candidates either. First we have Lucas Baiano, who made Michael Bay movie preview-style ads first for Tim Pawlenty and then for Rick Perry, and now Herman Cain comes out with this gem:

YouTube video

It’s hard to believe someone paid money for this. Viewers get a droopy, Cain’s campaign manager, mustachioed Mark Block, clearly unaccustomed to the camera, making a lot of awkward, easily mocked statements (“America’s never seen a candidate like Herman Cain”). Then he takes a drag from a cigarette (???), and we cut to Cain himself, his head taking up the entire right side of the frame. Viewers can’t see his neck, so when he turns toward the camera, it has a creepy disembodied feel to it. Then he smiles, and, well, just watch. Let’s just say it’s not surprising Kevin Drum was rendered helpless with laughter.

James Fallows says, half in jest, that this is a kind of bank shot making fun of Obama for his failure to quit smoking. Andrew Sullivan thinks it’s awesome.

I don’t buy it. If it’s a snarky dig at Obama, it’s not one that most voters are going to catch—nobody cares if Obama smokes or not. If it’s a sincere ad, if Cain is really that clueless, then he is on the short road to being a national laughingstock.

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Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanlcooper. Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Nation.