With the Stakes So High, Democrats Eschew Political Ad Tropes in Favor of Hollywood-Style Spots

High production values and gripping narrative arcs connect with voters, and donors

First-time candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's two-minute ad began with the line, 'Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office.' Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Headshot of Kelsey Sutton

Making political ads for Democrats has long been Mark Putnam’s business, and lately, business has been especially good.

With 2018 shaping up to be a record year for first-time candidates on the Democratic side, Putnam and his firm, Putnam Partners, have had their hands full, producing long-form videos intended to support what Democrats hope will be a blue wave this November.

Putnam Partners is the company behind “Told Me,” an ad introducing Kentucky congressional candidate Amy McGrath, a retired Marine running as a Democrat, that went viral upon its release in August 2017. This year, the firm has also made ads for Mary Jennings “M.J.” Hegar, who’s running for Congress in Texas’s 31st Congressional District, as well as for Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and South Carolina gubernatorial candidate James Smith.

Putnam declined to provide the number of campaigns that the firm has handled, but he says it’s been unlike anything he’s ever seen. “We’re historically very busy this time of year, but it’s at another level this time around,” he says.

And with good reason. As the Democratic Party looks to turn President Trump’s low approval ratings and day-to-day White House drama into real results in the House and Senate—not to mention governors’ mansions and statehouses around the country—some of those candidates, buoyed by local activism efforts, are taking on what were once considered unwinnable races against both Republicans and more moderate Democrats. The momentum on the left has put even some deep-red districts at risk. Elsewhere, Democratic establishment candidates are facing real pressure from insurgent progressive candidates, prompting unprecedented spending in reliably blue states like New York and Rhode Island.

With the stakes high on all sides, the elections are on track to be the most expensive in U.S. history, according to a recent estimate from Borrell Associates, a consultancy that tracks political ad spend.

“This year, the Democrats are being far more aggressive in their use of money to make sure they win elections they believe are critical to them, and Republicans are having to play defense,” said Kip Cassino, evp at Borrell Associates. “… Their strategy is to win, and if it takes a lot of money to do that, they’re willing to spend that money.”

Because many of these Democratic candidates are first- or second-time candidates with little to no name recognition outside of the districts in which they are running, political ad makers are tasked with finding ways to introduce them to their would-be constituents. With that goal in mind, some of the most successful ad makers in the cycle are eschewing the political storytelling staples of years past and looking for new ways to brand candidates.

“Voters are fed up with the usual clichés they see in political advertising,” Putnam says. “… I have been in so many focus groups where voters dismiss the formerly tried-and-true ways of presenting candidates. Voters are savvy, and they pick up on these techniques that for literally decades have never changed—the B-roll shots of the candidate in a hard hat, reading a book to children or talking to seniors in a community center.”

Instead, campaigns are gravitating toward political ads that look more like documentary features or Hollywood biopics. These digital-first ads, which are sometimes condensed and repurposed for shorter television spots, are designed to encourage sharing and discussion, and motivate people to join the cause.

“You are seeing a lot of production techniques that are a lot like a documentary in style, that are capturing real moments that are not scripted,” Putnam says. “We have found that that’s compelling.”  

More than a few of these ads have ricocheted across the internet, making the candidate a national name. Recall, for example, a viral ad for Randy Bryce, a Democratic candidate in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District who is better known by the moniker “Iron Stache” and who announced in an emotional 2017 video that he was taking on House Speaker Paul Ryan. (Ryan has since announced his retirement.) In August, Bryce won the Democratic primary in the district, and he is headed to the November general election.

But going viral isn’t the only measure of success. Long-form introductory videos that get wide reach can be one of the most effective ways to stir up national support for a local candidate and attract donations from around the country, which then allow campaigns to turn around and spend that new money on local ad placements.

“That’s the key,” Putnam says. “We are launching candidates on a national platform digitally to hopefully raise the funds to be able to run a localized campaign where we’re actually talking to voters.”

This story first appeared in the October 1, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@kelseymsutton kelsey.sutton@adweek.com Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.