That message resonated with thousands of Web surfers, who chose Cuenca's ad as one of fifteen finalists in "Bush in 30 Seconds," a competition sponsored by the political advocacy group MoveOn.org.
It's not hard to see why Cuenca's ad was among those chosen. It features a rapid succession of smiling faces -- small, photographic portraits of American soldiers who have been killed in Iraq. The remarkable slide show plays against a backdrop of low-resolution, archival footage of President Bush making the case for the Iraq war with assertions that were exaggerated or untrue.
On January 12, at an event held at New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom, Cuenca sat with the other finalists as a panel of judges, including filmmaker Michael Moore and comedian Janeane Garofalo, announced which ad would air in political swing states during the week of Bush's State of the Union address.
But Cuenca's trip was anticlimactic. Two days before leaving for New York, Cuenca, concerned that some of the soldiers' parents might object to photos of their sons or daughters being used without consent, withdrew his entry from consideration.
"It's really extremely disappointing on one hand, but on the other hand, there's a possibility that this could cause problems for MoveOn," Cuenca says. "We know for sure that within the military and military families, the broad political spectrum is represented. So there will be families that are really approving of the ad and some that are really disapproving. I think if it's a matter of taking a chance on some families really being disturbed by it, then it's better not taking that chance."
A fervent activist, the former University of Kansas journalism instructor resolved to make the war in Iraq his subject from the moment he heard about the contest. "From the very beginning, I was focusing in that direction -- [Bush] lying about the need for going to war in Iraq and the cost in human lives," he says. "I felt like the cost in our own servicepeople would be more influential and gripping to the American people."
Cuenca, whose stepfather served in Vietnam, says he wanted his ad to honor American families with children and siblings serving in the Middle East. "I have the highest respect and esteem for everyone in the military, and I understand really strongly the commitment they're making, the selfless sacrifice many of them are making," he says. "I feel like they are in many ways trusting us as the electorate to make sure they're used in the most effective ways possible and for the most valid reasons. I think there are some who might use the word waste, but I don't think of it that way. I don't want anyone to think that their child or mother or father or brother or sister or loved one was in any way wasted, that their lives were in any way wasted."
Of the "Bush in 30 Seconds" finalists, Cuenca created the spot most similar to traditional attack ads, with the majority of the screen showing a foggy, colorless image of Bush speaking about Saddam Hussein's supposed nuclear and biological stockpile and Iraq's supposed relationship with the al-Qaeda terrorist network -- arguments for the invasion of Iraq that have since proved dubious.
"When I was working on this ad, I really thought I'd be surprised if I was the only person who came up with this particular idea," Cuenca says. "There were quite a few that played on that theme, but some of them were just too complicated. They required you to read and listen and watch images at the same time. I think that's the beauty of the [ads] in the top fifteen -- that their messages are a lot clearer.
Unlike Cuenca's direct, low-budget approach, the winning ad, "Child's Pay" by Denver's Charlie Fisher, has a lush, highly produced look with arresting visuals. Shot on film, the ad shows children performing manual labor -- washing dishes, loading a garbage truck, sorting mail -- then asks how future generations will pay off Bush's $1 trillion deficit.
The fifteen finalists for the "Bush in 30 Seconds" contest represented varied concerns about the Bush administration -- the growing deficit, the rollback of civil rights, the endangerment of social programs, economic policies that benefit the wealthy, the ongoing situation in Iraq. The idea, MoveOn organizers say, was to "bring new talent and new messages into the world of mainstream political advertising."
But Cuenca says that MoveOn was also nervous about his ad causing a backlash from military families.
Last week, the organization pulled the ad from its Web site. But readers can still see Cuenca's handiwork at the Pitch's Web site, Pitch.com.
"If you boil the ad down to its essence, it presents two facts," he says. "And it doesn't make any evaluations or suggest you make any evaluations of those facts. So it really leaves it up to the viewer to think about it in ways they wouldn't if it was a little more complicated or if at the end it said, 'You should hate George Bush.' Really, it leaves it up to the viewers to make up their own minds about how they feel about those two facts."