Let’s Steal From the Democratic Midterm Campaign Ads

[Joining Doug Kessler’s ‘Let’s Steal From’ series, where we ← yes, now it’s a we, take things from the world (internet) and scrutinize them for all they’re worth.]

You take someone young.

With a chip on their shoulder.

But from outside the establishment.

They have something to prove.

‘Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.’

You tell their origin story, but in their voice.

You use modern filming techniques: lots of bokeh, hand-held cinematography, a filter to remove polish and add drama.

You show them in the real world.

In their world.

Their community.

You remind the audience where they’ve come from.

They’re not from the establishment.

‘Young People speaking their minds’

You take their words and you give them an angle.

‘The courage to change’

‘A new possible’

‘Truth to power’

You make them approachable.


They’re on the subway.

They’re in the classroom.

They’re in their bodega.

You shatter the fourth wall.

They reach out to you.

It’s not just them, it’s us.

We see ourselves in them.

Not exactly, but close enough.

They’re real.

They’re different.

They start presenting their ideas.

We hear them out, they deserve at least that.

They ask us to do something.

Stand with them.

Support them.

Vote for them.

‘Paranoia strikes deep’

Is this strategy?

‘There’s something happening here’*

Over the last few weeks I’ve noticed a trend. Young Democrats running for Congress have started producing incredibly powerful story-driven campaign Ads. One was a breath of fresh air. Two was a coincidence. But three, four?

As Dubya said…Fool me twice…

Why should we as marketers care?

For starters, politics is about promoting or selling a concept – an ideology, a platform, action, influence.

Just like you and me, politicians are looking to get a message in front of a target audience and convert them.

But I also think there’s something bigger happening here. The new era of anti-establishment politics looks like it’s entering a fascinating new phase. And I think it’s learning the same moves the best marketers have learned.

See Exhibit A (these are links)

A New Possible | Kaniela Saito Ing

We’re told a story of a working-class man with humble beginnings. He faces a number of challenges that are relatable: Student loans, high rent, etc. He’s decided to stand up for his community and run for congress. We’re greeted with beautiful scenes of Hawaii. They’re not just of crystal blue ocean and amazing resorts. They’re realistic.

He tells us it’s time for a new era of democratic leadership.

Exhibit B

Truth to power | Jahana Hayes

She’s “teacher of the year”. But from very humble beginnings. Drug addicted parent. Self-made. Mother at a young age.

The campaign video only has about 1800 views though.

So how did it get anywhere?

Now This News tweeted a version that front-loaded and thumbnailed the Obama Teacher of the Year announcement. Its headline reads ‘America’s teacher of the year is running for congress.’ It has over 600,000 views.

Now This News is a media brand built for the social media age. Owned by the same people that own other made-for-Facebook platforms such as the DoDo and Thrillist, the CEO’s father Ken Lerer co-founded the HufPo (yes, Ariana wasn’t alone) and is chairman of Buzzfeed. In other words, this is very targeted marketing built for the internet age.

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Exhibit C

The Courage to Change | Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Oacasio-Cortez has already won her primary and looks set to be a shoe-in to congress in the heavily democrat 14th Congressional District of New York. Something’s working. The ad breaks the 4th wall, it’s beautifully shot, it’s believable and it draws you into the story. Oh and it was filmed by volunteers. That’s her family, not actors – that’s her bodega. And she wrote the thing.

Exhibit D

Doors | MJ Hegar

The style and pace of this advert is impressive. The central point is the idea of closed doors. In getting to that point, MJ Hegar offers cross-aisle, indisputable evidence of her credibility. We arrive at the doors problem and immediately relate. We’ve all had doors closed in our faces. It’s one of the most frustrating things on the planet. It’s also something we fear – a closed door is a lost opportunity.

The ad is able to communicate the complexity of all of this in just over 3 minutes. That’s internet-ready.

Exhibit E

The Power of US/Change Can’t Wait | Ayanna Pressley

As I write this, Ayanna Pressley has just won the Democratic nomination for her district, unseating a 10-term incumbent in the process.

That is to say, Change Can’t Wait has worked.

One of the biggest differences in Pressley’s message is that this same formula is delivered across 3 distinct videos.

The campaign launch takes us right into Ayanna’s life. Her mother, her father, the struggles she’s faced. They’re not dissimilar to the struggles of any working class person.

The second video tracks a bus that runs through Boston. ‘You can learn everything you need to know about the 7th Congressional district by riding the number 1 bus.’ Where the first video focusses on Pressley, here she makes the jump to focus on the community. Oh yah, and it’s been translated into Haitian Creole, Spanish and Chinese.

The last video is polished, glossy and rousing. ‘The Power of US’ serves as the call to action.

Exhibit F

Fighting for Progress | Sharice Davids

At first glance, Fighting for Progress appears to follow a similar formula to these other young, anti-establishment, congressionally aspiring democrats.

However, there are some important differences.

Sharice Davids uses her career as an MMA fighter as a metaphor for her congressional ambition – progress is undefeated. This video takes a very different approach to the others. For starters, the metaphor dominates the visuals: We don’t see Davids in her constituency, in the Ho Chunk Nation, as a single mom or as an entrepreneur. She’s presented as a fighter.

Another significant difference with ‘Fighting for Progress’ is that an opponent is named. In fact, very little platform makes the cut other than the naming of the opponent.

So what’s happening here?

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To some extent, they’re using Trump’s tactics. They’re all:

  • Anti-establishment
  • ‘Humble beginnings’
  • Built for web
  • Sound-bite communication tactics
  • Ultra-targeted distribution

They also all use a similar formula:

1)    They tell a story using the first person.

2)    They build that story into a crescendo of anecdotes. They are detailed, but not too detailed. They’re relatable.

3)    The narrative shifts to the third person. Several of them even break the 4th wall to talk directly to the audience.

4)    With rapport established, a platform is laid-out.

5)    They all end in a call to action.

What’s happening here is representative of what’s happening across markets. The establishment is getting torn up in favour of products that are relatable. We seek craft over mass-produced. We all want to feel unique.

But personalization can only take a message so far down that path.

For instance, a political campaign can’t actually tailor its message for every single constituent need. In fact, it can only contain so much policy before it begins to alienate.

In business, personalization is about achieving the right balance between big data analysis, product variables, time and cost. It’s a delicate balance: too far one way and you go broke, too far the other and you end up with unsatisfied customers, right in the middle and you get compromise.

But, not personalizing something down to the level of unique doesn’t mean you can’t make it relatable. When we see a bit of ourselves in someone else, we warm to it. In fact, this is probably why Fighting for Progress doesn’t quite work. Your average constituent isn’t going to relate to an MMA career.

Empathy is how you personalize a message to the masses. You don’t need to be treated uniquely to feel unique.

*(Yes, those are Buffalo Springfield lyrics. It turns out ‘For what it’s worth’ wasn’t an anti-war song. It was actually in response to the 1966 Sunset Strip Curfew Riots. They started when strict curfew laws were introduced to the Strip to discourage young counterculture, artistic types from gathering past 10pm. But, the song remains so resonant and relatable because it isn’t too tailored to the Sunset Strip Curfew Riots. In other words, it strikes the right balance between being personal without being personalized. And no rousing narrative is complete without an inspirational soundtrack!)

As I said, I’m joining the  ‘Lets Steal From’ series. Joining what? Well, this goldmine:

There’s the one about this supergraphic containing 7000+ martech companies.

There’s the one about the man who tries to find himself in the rainforest when he should have just kept following the frog.

And one on stealing from great first lines of novels – so you can steal from people like George Orwell or Gabriel Garcia-Marquez.

There’s one about the Airbnb City Guides, really smart content that the team doesn’t even have to make.

It turns out there’s a lot to steal from out there if you look hard enough, you content kleptomaniacs!

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