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.”

Ads, and candidates, that push the envelope

On May 30, a largely unknown candidate in New York’s 14th Congressional District blasted into the national consciousness with a two-minute ad published online that began with the line, “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office.”

The advertisement featured cinematic and somber views of the city district seen from its subway lines and sidewalks and showed first-time candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, in intimate, everyday situations—putting her makeup on, changing her shoes on the subway platform, laughing with children while canvassing on the sidewalk and in parks. Throughout the ad, Ocasio-Cortez’s voiceover frankly discusses the issues she feels are of utmost importance in the district. At one point, she directly addresses the camera about getting her priorities passed: “It takes political courage.”

Means of Production produced the spot, the agency’s first-ever political ad. In an interview with Adweek, Naomi Burton and Nick Hayes, two of the Detroit-based production cooperative’s three co-founders, explain that Burton reached out to Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter in March after seeing the candidate in a video posted by the progressive media company NowThis. They began work on the ad soon after, and from start to finish, the project took about two months to complete.

Less than a month after the ad was released, Ocasio-Cortez won the district primary against the 10-term incumbent, House Democratic caucus chair Joe Crowley. Her stunning victory shook the Democratic establishment and has been labeled the biggest Democratic primary upset in 2018. She is largely seen as a shoo-in in the general election, considering the district she won is overwhelmingly Democratic.  

Ocasio-Cortez’s victory can’t be attributed entirely to the ad, of course—the candidate’s ground game was so aggressive that she wore through the soles of a pair of shoes. But the ad demonstrated the value of authentic messages and documentary-style filmmaking that are fast becoming the new normal for political ads.

For Means of Production, it represented the beginning of a breakout year. Since producing Ocasio-Cortez’s viral ad, the cooperative has made videos for other leftist candidates around the country, including Kaniela Ing, who ran unsuccessfully in Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, and Julia Salazar, a socialist New York Senate candidate who won a contentious Democratic primary in September.

Burton and Hayes, who met while attending a Democratic Socialists of America meeting in Detroit, previously worked in the film and advertising industries before quitting to found Means of Production in 2017. Disenchanted with corporate work and eager to make a difference, the two take on projects making media that advances causes they believe in. The cooperative’s goal, says Hayes, is to produce videos that have a longer shelf life than typical campaigns and to advance leftist political ideas.  

“Campaigns have an expiration date,” Hayes says. “We are interested in building enduring structures on the left that are pushing forward a conversation and an agenda regardless of if we win every single campaign.”

This approach is evident not just in the storytelling but in the formats Means produces. The Ocasio-Cortez ad, for example, was never intended to run on television. Several clips were repurposed for radio spots, but the target audience for the video itself was digitally native people, they say.

“Our audience is young people—people who are a little disengaged, who are not those so-called target voters who are watching TV,” Burton says. Those young people, Hayes added, are the kinds of viewers who will share videos that resonate with them, create their own content supporting candidates they support and get the word out organically.

“[Young people] have a larger network and social influence than other demographics,” Hayes says.

Generating visibility and campaign donations

M.J. Hegar’s life story is being made into a movie that will reportedly star Angelina Jolie, based on the memoir Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front. But millions of people around the country have already seen the Democratic candidate in action—not from a film trailer, but rather from a three-and-a-half-minute ad for her long-shot congressional bid that was released in June.

Hegar, who is running against an eight-term incumbent Republican in Texas, is a former Air Force pilot who sued the Pentagon over its ban on women serving in ground combat units. Cayce McCabe, Putnam Partners’ svp for creative, produced and directed the ad, which repeatedly references the various doors—literal and metaphorical—Hegar has faced in her life. Edited to feel like one long shot, the ad describes a journey of triumph over adversity, ending with the suggestion that victory on Election Day will be next.

McCabe says he took inspiration from the acclaimed film Birdman, which also employed a Steadicam and occasional whip pans to create the appearance of a single continuous shot throughout the ad. “We wouldn’t have done justice to [Hegar] to give her a traditional political ad,” says McCabe.

While long-form introductory spots have their place, they’re not intended to replace traditional television advertising, which remains the bread and butter of most political campaigns. According to Borrell Associates, it’s estimated that candidates will spend $3.5 billion on broadcast TV, which gives campaigns access points to older voters, who are among the most reliable of the electorate. As Election Day approaches, McCabe has produced several 30-second spots for Hegar that have run on local television.

Still, in the five years since McCabe has been at Putnam Partners, campaigns are more regularly requesting introductory videos like Hegar’s, he says. After all, they generate both visibility for the candidates and dollars for the campaign. In the 10 days after Hegar’s ad was released, her campaign raised nearly $750,000 in donations from across the country. The fundraising boon has meant Hegar outraised her opponent, Rep. John Carter, and recent polling in the district shows her closing in on his lead.

“We’ll show him tough,” a confident Hegar says at the end of the spot. “Then we’ll show him the door.”

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.