Political advertising is often referred to as a “dark art”, some kind of nefarious voodoo performed by hacks who live under the stairs and come out every two years to scare us in our living rooms. And many of those ads fairly perpetuate that impression.
Like any other profession there are those who slog away churning out pablum. Then, there are people who are skilled craftsmen and women. Democratic ad maker Julian Mulvey has given us all a lesson in what great political advertising looks like. I was able to get a few brief comments from Mulvey (he’s quite busy…) and, together with my own thoughts, here is why the film is so special.
It captures the essence of the candidate. So many political ads invest themselves in trying to persuade us which issues are important, or what to think about another candidate or party. Instead, the best ads answer the question we really want to know. What is this person about?
Magnificently, without a single work of dialogue, this reveals the essence of Bernie Sanders and the thing that makes him different from everyone else in the field – Passion. Whether you agree with Sanders’ policy positions or not, no one believes he’s not passionate about his views. That’s the spirit of this entire piece of communication – if you passionately believe in the promise of America this is your campaign, come on board.
Misdirection. Typically, in the last two weeks of a race, we wince when we turn on the TV, awash in thirty second nastygrams. Instead, this is a positive ad “right at the moment when candidates typically go negative” Mulvey says. One YouTube commenter even wrote “wait, aren’t you supposed to be attacking somebody?”
Things you don’t expect are more interesting and engaging than the same old same old. This is a refreshing, encouraging and uplifting ad that will stand out from a sea of screens cloaked in dark tones, ominous voices and red underlining of tough words.
Less is more. I once had a professor who demanded our class write a difficult exam answer on one blue book sheet of paper. It was great training for being a communications professional. In a cluttered and distracted world, “fewer” is simpler, stronger and clearer. You have to be understood to be truly heard. You don’t need one more word to get your point across. You need a better word or, sometimes, no words at all.
Masterful pacing. Mulvey said one of his objectives was to create “infectious enthusiasm.” He nailed it, as you can feel the excitement build through the spot. The film and music all work together to connect powerful crescendos. If you are a Sanders supporter, you are ready to go knock on doors in zero degree Iowa weather from now until caucus night. That’s a win.
Emotion beats reason. So many political spots work overtime trying to make an argument. Here, there is no argument to process, no intellectual gymnastics to perform. You simply need to sit back and experience the moment. You want to watch this ad over and over again not to comprehend the case it makes, but so you can smile just one more time.
The power of music. The music track can often be the single most important choice in an ad. It’s sets the mood and tone of the entire conversation. Here, a familiar song known by many is the most powerful part of the ad. Why is this important?
Many people today are disillusioned and angry. They learned from their parents, grandparents, teachers and leaders what America is supposed to be. They still believe in that America, and they want to make it work. They may be frustrated by the failure of political leadership but they are not going to quit on America. They’re still “looking” for the America they idealize, the one to which we all aspire. The ad acknowledges that yearning and rather than lecture us about it or tell us what that version of America ought to look like, it simply it holds up a mirror to it and reflects its radiant beauty. As Mulvey told me, “it lets the viewer write the script, right from their own life story.” Brilliant.
Production value matters. How many times has a powerful concept or a great idea been killed by a low rent production budget. So many people in media have been trained to worship at the altar of reach, frequency and the almighty gross rating point. But watching tripe ten times instead of eight isn’t going to change anyone’s mind or make them feel anything different. You can put a sorry product on every computer or TV screen in America and it will still be sorry.
Great communication is about the power of the expression, the beauty of the idea – not how many times you can bludgeon someone over the head with it. Invest in the idea. Buy the famous song rights. Steal some money from the media budget and have the courage to create something powerful, inspirational and moving. If you are talking about the search for the American ideal, then have the courage to capture it in its perfect glory, with beautiful films like this that showcase the depth and breath of the subject and the passion with which people believe in it.
So hats off from this Republican to Mulvey and the Sanders’ campaign for a great ad. Will it work? We’ll see. The Clinton machine continues to trudge along like a snowplow, and it may push Sanders to the side. But with work like this in the field, Sanders will continue to have a chance to pull the biggest upset since… well, since the last time the Clinton snowplow ended up in an Iowa ditch.