The Problem With Boring Political Advertisements
Most American political ads are terrible. Regardless of whether or not the information in the ad is even true or has context, most campaign materials are incredibly lacking in any cinematic imagination or technique. It’s all too easy to visualize the black-and-white footage of a candidate that a SuperPAC opposes, storm clouds over a government building, and shots of “sketchy,” non-white individuals stalking the night. Even gentler campaign ads can be just as eye-rollingly predictable, as if stock footage of a diverse crowd of blue-collar workers in hard hats, soldiers saluting the flag, and children studying happily implies the candidate has plans to address racial injustice, military spending, labor unions, or education funding. Political advertisements rarely delve into visual styles that are more complicated than an Instagram filter. If campaign media receives widespread attention, it does so through production disasters, rather than through its effectiveness.
Political ads are not intended to sway undecided voters; their purpose is to confirm the fears and prejudices of voters who already support their candidate. Florida Governor candidate Ron Desantis ran a political ad showcasing his family as a mouthpiece for Trumpism; Republican-party ads that antagonized Antonio Delgado exploited his past as a musician to paint him as an un-American thug; and Brian Kemp laid his claim to the position of Georgia Governor on the basis that he’s “a politically incorrect Conservative” without any other mention of his qualifications or experience. These ads don’t seek to explain, convince, or implore viewers, but instead to “trigger” and embolden the most base and ugly impulses within a candidate’s supporters.
This June, the race for the House of Representatives Seat of Texas’s 31st congressional district led to one of the most shared and viewed political ads of the midterm election cycle. The video, titled Doors, tells the life story of candidate MJ Hegar from her childhood, to her service in the Air National Guard, to being shot down in Afghanistan, to suing the Secretary of Defence to allow women to overturn the Combat Exclusion Policy, and to her campaign for congress. Despite the significant length of the video (most political ads only run for 30 seconds, not three minutes) the footage engages viewers with its Goodfellas-esque combination of long tracking shots, graphic matches, a strong background score, and a voice-over by the candidate herself. The production also creates a visual motif slammed doors: the one her mother was thrown through by an abusive husband, and the helicopter door Hegar herself was shot through on duty. The slammed-door motif implies the candidate’s values and record without having to explicitly state them as the usual campaign platitudes.
These techniques and stylistic flourishes set Doors in a completely different category of visual medium than most ads. It’s more like a short film than a campaign ad. Several other campaigns have adopted similar visual effects to distinguish themselves in a new mode of political campaigning; director Richard Linklater of Boyhood shot multiple videos against Ted Cruz in the style of the film Bernie, Dean Phillips of Minnesota created a short mockumentary using Bigfoot to satirize his opponent’s absence from the district he represents, and Beto O’Rourke’s campaign organized a short film competition for Texas voters to submit ads. These videos, which received plenty of views online, have capitalized on both the possibilities of the new internet medium that television has restricted in the past, and also stand in stark contrast to the tired tropes of past political ads.
As low-tech as the style and substance of most political advertisements are, they do not owe their longevity to incompetence. According to a report released by the Wesleyan Media Project the first two weeks after Labor Day “the volume of television advertising in 2018 was well above the volume in 2014, especially in federal races.” Millions of dollars are spent on these campaigns, with intense and varied scrutiny placed upon each and every move the candidates and their teams make in order to win the election. These ads aren’t unoriginal and intellectually shallow because it’s easy, but because doing so normalizes these issues in politics themselves.
Creating political ads to simply push the pleasure or outrage response buttons in the human brain reduces politics to something that doesn’t require inquiry, nuance, or compassion. Using lazy visual techniques makes the election material all the less intellectually intrusive to the viewer. The lack of style or originality in political advertisements is a result of a movement to normalize a population of voters who don’t question power or authority, who don’t pry deeper into politics, who accept empty slogans as replacements of serious policies that will affect millions of lives.
The way in which an idea is expressed should be fundamentally shaped by the content of the idea itself. If the public allows for political ads to be expressed in a way that is shallow and intellectually dishonest, then shallow and intellectually dishonest ideas and candidates will continue to flourish.