Cicadas are coming. Last time they attacked John Kerry

Back in 2004, the bugs arrived in the middle of a presidential campaign

The empty shell of a periodical cicada nymph clings to a tree after the adult insect molted Monday in Takoma Park, Md.  (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
The empty shell of a periodical cicada nymph clings to a tree after the adult insect molted Monday in Takoma Park, Md. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Posted May 12, 2021 at 6:00am

Nothing screams “attack ad” like the ear-splitting song of Brood X cicadas.

The jumpy insects — with massive wings, bulging red eyes and a mating song so loud that females have been known to confuse lawnmowers with potential mates — are beginning to emerge from their 17-year slumber. The last time they were here, they landed right in the middle of a presidential campaign. 

It was 2004, as the election raged between George W. Bush and John Kerry. The bugs were everywhere, and in the fledgling days of internet videos, it was only natural to combine the two

“Every 17 years cicadas emerge, morph out of their shell and change their appearance,” a soothing male voice suited for a nature documentary begins, as a juvenile cicada bursts through its exoskeleton into adulthood.   

“Like a cicada, Sen. Kerry would like to shed his Senate career and morph into a fiscal conservative,” the voice continues.

Ads like this one, released by the Republican National Committee, were a relatively new concept at the time. Instead of being cut for a television spot, the videos were designed to be shared in an email and played on a web browser. 

“Analysts say humor can work particularly well on the Web, with partisans sending links to pals — and it could be particularly welcome to buck up the faithful after a week of reports about the Iraqi prison abuse scandal,” a New York Post reporter wrote in a May 2004 story about the ad. 

The animation, which seems almost quaint by today’s standards in video production, transitions from a cicada hatching to one skittering across the screen, crawling all over Kerry’s record on Capitol Hill. “Seventeen years ago, Kerry voted to raise taxes,” the narrator says, between rounds of cicada chirping. 

“When the cicadas emerge they make a lot of noise, but they always revert to form before disappearing again,” the ad concludes, as a terrifying close up of the bug slowly transforms into a photo of Kerry’s face. 

The message is that Kerry was a poser. The vibe is pure early internet kitsch.  

“The cicada timing was perfect with the morphing into a different type of Democrat,” said Laura Crawford, who produced the video for the RNC and is now president and founder of TALEGATE, a political ad and video production company. 

As an RNC contractor, she created the cicada video and a few dozen others that were blasted out to supporters’ email inboxes, working closely with Jim Dyke. The RNC communications director used new and nontraditional advertising methods in an effort to knock Kerry’s campaign off-kilter. 

Dyke, who did not respond to requests for comment, was behind a range of off-beat RNC ideas that included websites like “KerryWrongForCatholics.com” and a pod of people wearing dolphin costumes to chase him around.

‘Are cicadas Republican or Democrat?’

The creative process was simple, said Crawford, describing Dyke as no-nonsense and results-driven with a good sense of humor. As cicadas descended on Washington, he shot her a quick note.

“It was just an email, like, ‘What do you think about doing an ad that involves cicadas?’ she said in a phone interview this month. “Then I got him a draft immediately. We laughed about it, and then just released it to a bunch of people.” 

It was nothing personal against cicadas. “I have no personal feelings, other than, I don’t really like how they dart at me from all different directions,” she said.

At least one entomologist scratched her head at the time.

“Were I picking campaign metaphors, I might have gone with just about any holometabolous species over the periodical cicada — say, grub to beetle, or maggot to fly,” insect expert May Berenbaum wrote in 2004.

“If I’m for Kerry, does that mean I’m against cicadas? Are cicadas Republican or Democrat? Do other insects have party affiliations?” she mused.

Looking back through history, Berenbaum found reports of the critters almost drowning out then-President Theodore Roosevelt during a Memorial Day speech in 1902. Whenever cicadas descend on the Washington region, they’re bound to fly headfirst into politics, whether they like it or not. 

Her position on that hasn’t changed, Berenbaum said in an interview last week, 17 years later.

“They’re impossible to ignore, they demand your attention and they get it,” said Berenbaum, now head of the entomology department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Brood X — the X being the Roman numeral for 10 — is the Great Eastern Brood of cicadas, the 10th of 15 periodical broods that hatch from time to time on the East Coast. 

The bugs dig their way out of the ground after nearly two decades of feeding on meager rations of tree xylem, then molt into adults, mate, lay eggs and die soon after. Their offspring once again dive down into the soil, ready to once again tap into the roots.

Eastern North America is one of the only places where these periodical cicadas exist, and when European settlers first arrived, they called them locusts, assuming the infestation was some visitation from an angry god who decided to punish them with a plague, she said. But the edible bugs that get chomped on by all kinds of predators (and the occasional teen on a dare) don’t do much damage like the biblical variety — they’re just weird. 

Political buzz

So did the Republican National Committee’s weird cicadas play exactly how Crawford had hoped? Almost. While the attack ad got a fair amount of press coverage, it was eclipsed by another of Crawford’s creations — a mashup video of John Kerry and the Austin Powers film franchise. 

In the age before YouTube or Twitter, the goal of these videos was to experiment with the form — unlike on TV, there were no time constraints — and try to generate some buzz.

“It was exploiting a new and experimental media, but it was conveying very much the same coherent message that we were conveying about John Kerry at that time of the campaign,” said Terry Holt, who served as the Bush-Cheney national spokesman. 

That experimentation on political campaigns is still happening today, it’s just moved onto different platforms like TikTok or virtual reality, said David Karpf, a professor in George Washington University’s school of media and public affairs.

“Video in 2004 is still in the way-too-early experimental phase,” Karpf said.

One of the biggest innovations that came out of the 2004 race, Karpf said, was the online fundraising and organizing seen from the campaign of Howard Dean. What’s going to be the next big thing is anyone’s guess.  

“Seventeen years is generations in internet time, and it’s kind of fun to look back and think about just how different it all was then,” he said.

We’ll probably be having a similar conversation in 2038. Until then, cicadas will be sucking sap, blissfully unaware of their role in demonizing Kerry, or more recently, their cameo on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” where a stadium mascot-sized cicada pranced around wearing a shirt that said “GET VAXXED.”   

“Cicadas are left behind underground,” entomologist Berenbaum said. “They’re doing the thing they’ve done for millions of years, and they come out to new pop culture every time.”