They bring new meaning to the phrase “ad nauseum.”
From solemn candidates speaking straight into a camera to deep-voiced narrators talking as American flags wave in a light breeze, the TV spots aired so far by 10 Democratic White House hopefuls are heavy on earnest presentations and omnipresent tropes, looking and sounding like the ads candidates have been running for decades.
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The onslaught of uber-traditional advertising has surprised observers and ad-makers watching the record number of Democratic candidates navigating the presidential race in an era of massive political change. They say it has left open a major opportunity for a creative campaign to break through amid the hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising still to come before the party picks a nominee.
Candidates don’t want to risk appearing unpresidential or make themselves the subject of talk-show mockery, but they may need to try something more original to break open a static 2020 campaign that has featured little polling movement and an ultra-crowded media environment.
“If you just do these ads that could have anyone else’s name stamped on them, that’s the really risky path to take,” said Owen Brennan, a Los Angeles-based ad-maker who made advertisements for Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign, which — like competitor and now-President Donald Trump — steered away from straightforward biographical ads during the race.
As the campaigns make their opening salvos, “nobody’s opened with a really provocative set of ads at this point,” said Mark Longabaugh, a media consultant who advised Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. While out-there advertising isn’t the solution for every campaign, Longabaugh said, “it is a cautious open here.”
Two candidates, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Tom Steyer, have made major investments in television ads so far. Steyer has spent more than $10 million on TV ads, accounting for two-thirds of the approximately $15 million in ad money spent by the 2020 field so far. The ads largely feature the billionaire talking to the camera, along with clips of him shaking voters’ hands, as Steyer talks about his record of political activism.
In early August, Gillibrand poured $1.5 million of her remaining campaign funds into advertising, in a last-ditch effort to make the Sept. 13 Democratic debate stage. “I’m proud that I supported ‘Medicare for All’ before it was popular. Nothing’s impossible if we fight for it,” Gillibrand said in one ad, which featured images of her riding in a car, walking down a hallway then speaking at a rally.
Gillibrand’s ads didn’t do enough to help her qualify for the debate, and she exited the race at the end of August. It’s a startling example of how candidates who are fighting for survival in 2020 are still being surprisingly risk-averse, even in a pack of more than 20 candidates, said Ian Russell, a Democratic media strategist.
“Many of the people motivated to be on TV right now are motivated by existential necessity — whether it was Steyer, motivated to be on the debate stage, or Gillibrand, fighting for her life,” Russell said. “These were high-stakes moves, and yet they resulted in generic ads.”
But veteran Democratic ad-maker Steve Murphy said the slate of ads running so far are doing their jobs: acquainting voters with candidates and their records, often for the first time.
“There’s no groundbreaking ads creatively or stylistically. But they’re all thoroughly researched, in terms of what a candidate needs out of their advertising,” Murphy said.
Steyer spokesman Alberto Lammers echoed that point, saying Steyer’s straightforward advertising is helping voters learn about the candidate and his basic views on key issues. Lammers pointed to certain polling of early states that Steyer is barraging with ads, which has shown him creeping upward and helped him qualify for the October Democratic debate.
“We’re encouraged,” Lammers said, adding that the campaign plans to continue buying airtime. “The message is penetrating.“
The one ad that has broken from the pack, practitioners said, was a recent spot from Joe Biden’s campaign: It flashes black-and-white family photos on-screen and focuses on how he interacted with the health care system when his family experienced the tragedies of a car crash in the 1970s and his son’s diagnosis with cancer when Biden was vice president.
Biden’s ad stands out because it emphasizes a specific message from the campaign in an “emotional and powerful” way, said Longabaugh, the former Sanders ad-maker.
Meanwhile, Sen. Kamala Harris’ first ad introduces her and her policy agenda to voters. She talks about her mother — “After we were fed and in bed, our mother would sit up trying to make it all work,” Harris says in the ad — and then introduces her “3 a.m. agenda,” which included policies like “Medicare for All” and a middle-class tax cut. “You’ve waited long enough to get a good night’s sleep,” the ad concludes. Harris spokesman Ian Sams said Harris’ backstory is relatable and is “a message we wanted to share with Iowans because it reflects her values and what motivates her in this race.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard — who has aired $818,000 in ads so far this cycle, the third-highest of any candidate after Steyer and Gillibrand — talked about her policy goals in an ad airing in South Carolina: “Meet Tulsi Gabbard, decorated war veteran who will end wasteful regime-change wars and new Cold War,” a narrator says in the ad.
Major advertising campaigns for presidential races can take tens of millions of dollars and countless hours to pull off. A super PAC backing Carly Fiorina spent months collecting shots of female supporters’ faces during the 2016 election, in anticipation that Trump would make a sexist attack on Fiorina and the footage would come in handy.
After Trump insulted Fiorina — “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” he said — the work did pay off in a widely viewed ad spotlighting the women’s faces.
And Sanders’ striking “America” ad, in which the eponymous Simon & Garfunkel song played for one minute over footage of Sanders and his supporters, was originally conceived of three months before it aired in January 2016, as the caucus season began. Sanders’ team of media strategists collected footage at rallies and events and workshopped the ad’s approach, at one point floating clips of Sanders speaking over the music before deciding to take the more minimalist approach.
Originally, the “America” ad didn’t feature the song “America,” either. At first, Sanders’ team had thought to use a different Simon & Garfunkel song, “American Tune,” before hitting on the more aspirational-sounding track at the suggestion of a spouse.
It’s one example of an ad that successfully drove its own media coverage, in addition to running on television, generating articles in the press and millions of views on YouTube. Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign set out to create a similar effect with some of its ads: The Cruz campaign wanted ads worthy of media conversation and chatter at the office, and hired a firm with Hollywood experience to create nontraditional ads ranging from the immigration-focused spot showing white-collar professionals scaling a border wall to Cruz reading satirical Christmas stories. That ad originally aired during an episode of “Saturday Night Live” hosted by Trump, and it helped spark a surge of fundraising for the Texas senator.
Other, less attention-grabbing ads from the Cruz campaign that aired in early voting states focused on helping the senator expand his appeal to new bloc of voters by emphasizing lesser-known parts of his biography.
“Biographical ads in presidential campaigns are dead,” said Jeff Roe, Cruz’s 2016 campaign manager. “If people want to know about presidential candidates, and they will go online and seek out that information.”
The current candidates, Roe said, are “being poorly served by their advertising because it’s not telling anything that’s unknown, or funny, or interesting.”