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Gary Chambers' new pot-smoking campaign ad in Senate race goes viral with old tactics

Gary Chambers Jr., pictured here in a file photo, is running against U.S. Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana. His first campaign video, "37 Seconds," features him smoking a blunt and discussing marijuana arrests and policy.
Melinda Deslatte
Gary Chambers Jr., pictured here in a file photo, is running against U.S. Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana. His first campaign video, "37 Seconds," features him smoking a blunt and discussing marijuana arrests and policy.

In just 37 seconds, Democrat Gary Chambers lit up Louisiana's race for the U.S. Senate.

On Tuesday, Chambers released a now-viral campaign video. In it, the candidate lights a blunt — while advocating for the legalization of marijuana.

The longtime community activist from Baton Rouge is running to replace U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, the Republican incumbent, as the junior senator from Louisiana.

Chambers strikes a serious tone in his first campaign ad. Wearing a suit and tie, he sits in an armchair in the middle of a field and rattles off statistics about arrests for marijuana possession in the U.S. and the money spent putting people behind bars for these charges.

"Every 37 seconds someone is arrested for the possession of marijuana. Black people are four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana laws than white people," he says in the video, citing data from the American Civil Liberties Union. "Most of the people police are arresting aren't dealers, but rather people with small mounts of pot — just like me."

The goal was to grab attention, while highlighting a serious issue Chambers hopes to tackle if elected, he told NPR.

Since it dropped, the video's gotten over 5 million views on Twitter and over 1 million on Instagram. Several articles have been written about it.

"We knew it would create conversation, but we had no idea that it would be to this degree," Chambers said. "Which shows not that we are so brilliant, but that so many people care about this issue and that we should do something about it."

While the content is novel, Chambers' "37 Seconds" video follows a familiar tactic used in campaigns. Publishing a shocking campaign video — a move used since at least the 1960s — can get a candidate some serious name recognition, while they talk about major issues, said Adolphus Belk, a professor of political science at Winthrop University in South Carolina.

"It has people talking about him," and for that, Chambers' team has been successful, Belk said.

From Daisy to pig castration and marijuana

This isn't the first time Chambers has made a splash with a video. In June 2020, a clip of him at a school board meeting was seen widely after he called out a board member for shopping online while community members were discussing why the district needed to rename a local school named after Robert E. Lee.

It's still too early to tell how this video will work for Chambers' political career. He faces a steep uphill battle in the U.S. Senate race to unseat Kennedy, the 70-year-old incumbent.

But if history is any indication, an eye-catching campaign ad can lead to big success.

The 1964 presidential election had the notorious "Peace, Little Girl" commercial — also known simply as the "Daisy" ad.

The ad, put together by President Lyndon B. Johnson's campaign, attacks his opponent Barry Goldwater's position on nuclear weapons.

The video starts with a little girl picking petals off a flower and counting. When she reaches "nine," a booming voice overhead counts down from "10." The scene cuts to footage of a mushroom cloud and massive explosion. At the end of the ad, the screen turns to black, and you read and hear the message: "Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

Johnson won that election by a landslide.

In 2014, now-Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa published a lighter video, but one that no less grabbed attention and was later spoofed on late-night television.

The 30-second ad called "Squeal" starts with a close-up of Ernst talking about growing up castrating hogs on her family's farm.

"So when I get to Washington, I'll know how to cut pork," she said.

Images of pigs in stalls flashed on the screen as she concluded: "Washington is full of big spenders. Let's make 'em squeal."

She also won her election.

The broad measure of a political ad's success is seen in fundraising contributions, Belk said.

"If [Chambers] does start raising money and there is some space for him in this race, then we can say it was a success beyond an attention grabbing, viral moment," Belk said.

Chambers' video highlights changing positions on marijuana legalization

Gary Chambers in his ad "37 Seconds."
/ Twitter/Screenshot by NPR
Twitter/Screenshot by NPR
Gary Chambers in his ad "37 Seconds."

In his video, Chambers cites real data from the American Civil Liberties Union.

As of 2020, despite legalization in a number of states, the ACLU says marijuana arrests are not trending downward. The organization says arrest rates have actually risen in the past few years. In every state, this problem is worse for Black people. They are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Racial disparities remain nearly the same even in states with legalized marijuana use.

His video was not done for shock appeal, Chambers said.

"We chose to use me smoking to talk about these glaring statistics and the need to do something about those statistics," he said.

This ad latches on to a major issue in the U.S. and one that voters have majorly shifted on in recent years, noted Belk of Winthrop.

"Some may dismiss it as a stunt, but he has said something important" by talking about a major issue on voters' minds, Belk said.

Pew Research reports a majorityof U.S. adults support legalizing marijuana for both medical and recreational use.

Chambers' home state of Louisiana has loosened restrictions on marijuana possession recently. New Orleans took steps in the summer to remove penalties for marijuana possession. Last June, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law a bill that reduces penalties for small amounts of the drug.

Belk hopes Chambers doesn't squander this moment of attention, and uses it to spread his broader campaign message.

"If all that comes of this video is that people remember he was smoking a blunt in a commercial, then it doesn't have that long-lasting impact."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.