The Democrats’ brand ad is broken. Can Hooligans fix it?

When Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s Draft Opinion Will Be Overturned Roe vs. Wade was leaked earlier this week, the already high stakes for the 2022 midterm elections have risen a bit more. Both parties see it as an issue that will mobilize voters. In a statement, President Biden said that “if the Court reverses deer, it will be up to our nation’s elected officials at all levels of government to protect women’s right to choose. And it will be up to voters to elect pro-choice leaders in November.

This explosive news comes at a curious time for the world of political advertising creative strategy greenhouse. Its role in encouraging and inspiring the electorate to vote mid-term was already in question. Although corners of this world have experimented with the workhorse formulas of the genre over the past decade, let’s be honest: most political ads rarely deviate from the same generic combination of bad b-roll, newspaper headlines alarmists, disturbing music, and a candidate giving a less than inspiring teleprompter reading. If you’re lucky, maybe instead of leaning on a fence, the candidate will be seated in a finely appointed living room.

Wow. No wonder voters don’t approve of this message.

For Republicans, the game continues to be to triple the stuff that will outrage the media and anyone to their left on social media, winning the hearts and votes of liberal tear-drinkers in the process. In other words, a potent mix of gun porn and blue-collar cosplay. A publication-deer world opens up a world of possibilities to stir up the culture wars.

More interesting, however, may be what the Democrats will do next. For a glimpse into the future of ads that will fill commercial breaks and your social media feeds over the next six months, I spoke to the political advertising specialists at The Hooligans Agency. The creative boutique was founded in 2020 by longtime television producer Shannon Fitzgerald and Tim Lim, a political media strategist, who worked on President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and Hillary for America, and it was Director of Partnerships at Change.org. In less than two years, the agency has since worked for both campaigns as well as outside groups, such as End Citizens United, RepresentUs, Lindsey Must Go Pac, Color of Change, Common Defence, The Southern Poverty Law Center, etc. .

Lim says the motivation for starting the agency was to try to solve a problem that the Democratic movement doesn’t really address. “The party is in desperate need of modernization, and we’ve been dealing with the same (advertising) manuals for decades,” Lim says. “It’s simple: Raise a ton of money to keep TV running for as long as possible, run two ads – one positive, then one about the issues – then max out that cookie-cutter message. If you look at expenses, that’s still the main equation. We don’t need more experimentation or fact sheets on what voters are consuming and how they are consuming it. We all know that’s not how voters consume media. But that’s the ingrained system we have.

Fitzgerald is the creative side of the partnership, with decades of television and film experience through Fox, CBS, Warner Bros., Sony Pictures and others. She made the leap into politics after the 2016 election and most recently led video content strategy, production and creative direction for Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign.

When it comes to political ads, Fitzgerald says most people are glassy-eyed, and the biggest misconception in politics is that you can’t have substance and be entertaining at the same time. Recent exceptions that bolster his view: the 2008 push for Florida seniors led by Sarah Silverman’s “The Great Schlep,” the 2018 anthem-like spots by Means of Production that helped drive voters to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, and 2022 Senate candidate Gary Chambers smoking a joint.

For creative strategy, Fitzgerald subscribes to what legendary industrial designer Raymond Loewy dubbed the MAYA principle: the most advanced, but acceptable. “It has to be the perfect combination of familiar and unfamiliar,” she says. “If it’s too familiar, the audience will be bored. If it’s too unfamiliar, it will scare them away.

This could take the form of a parody of ADT home security announcementswarning about the most vulnerable Democratic candidates, or an Air Force veteran reading a letter of resignation from Kyrsten Sinema’s Veterans Advisory Board.

With the veterans’ spot, Common Defense – the independent political action committee (PAC) advocating for progressive issues from a veterans perspective – was looking for a standard testimonial-style ad, featuring U.S. Air Force Sgt. Sylvia Gonzalez Andersh explaining why she wrote the letter. But Fitzgerald wanted to tap into the emotion of the decision and instead wanted the sergeant to read his letter to viewers. “She wrote it, she’s excited, she’s emotionally connected to those words,” Fitzgerald says. “The entertainment aspect, in this case, harnessed the authority and passion of this letter.”

In light of the revival Roe vs. Wade question, it’s a potentially galvanizing moment for Democratic activists, but their challenge is to amplify and help ordinary voters better understand why it’s so important, and then act on it. The party was already looking for ways to counter troubling poll numbers among young voters. “It’s going to be a big challenge for intermediaries, in terms of talking to voters, because clearly their bullshit meter is on high alert, their throttling to take in new information is low, and they’re busy trying to survive,” Lim says. “So how do we drill into them in a relevant and authentic way? It’s not by throwing out a bunch of legal phrases with facts and figures. That doesn’t work.

Lim and Fitzgerald advocate an approach that’s been familiar to leading marketers for more than a decade: spread ad spend across audiences and platforms and create tailored work for the viewer, where they’re consuming it. While fostering an agility that allows campaigns to react quickly and creatively to events, and try to tap into culture. Achieving this goal in politics has been an uphill battle, especially, as Lim says, when political strategists pose as advertising creatives. But the agency’s co-founders hope that a bright side of the higher stakes in future terms will be a boost in the Dems’ drive to outspokenly behave like a modern brand.

There are certain obstacles inherent in the operation of political affairs that can prevent a party from operating as a consumer merchant. One being that the party, candidates and outside advocacy groups are subject to rules that prevent the kind of coordination enjoyed by corporate brands. Another is who’s in the room doing those commercials. “It’s very clear to anyone working on the brand side that the kinds of programs run on the policy side, and the way they structure it, are not designed to be successful,” Lim says. “Most of the people making these creative decisions about campaigns are, frankly, old white people who have been running campaigns all their lives and now have decided to create a script. That’s how you get a lot of the creativity we’re stuck with today.

Although politicians cannot fully function as marketers because of the way campaign finance rules work, in what may be controlled by a campaign, third-party advocacy groups or PACs, they must adopt the same principles and tools used by marketers.

“We raise a lot of money, but we don’t spend it very well,” Fitzgerald said. “[Roe v. Wade] is not the only problem. There’s also marriage equality and civil rights, and they could come for those things next; so there are so many ways to connect with that on an emotional and visceral level.

About Cedric Lloyd

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