There’s a special art to creating a truly compelling political ad.
Usually, the options are fairly binary: either you craft a positive ad, or a negative one.
Option A usually shows a candidate out in the community, while a voiceover describes things they have done, or will do, if elected – what they stand for, and why they’re qualified for the office.
Option B, in contrast, is the attack ad. Here, we might get scary music or a montage of negative headlines, while a somber voiceover talks about how “my opponent” voted to cut funding to X, Y, or Z.
The play is to scare viewers with the vision of what will happen if your opponent gets elected, and then offer yourself as the desired alternative.
With either example it’s hard to craft a truly memorable ad with the emotional resonance to truly move the needle and inspire voters to action.
Here are three classic political ads that do just that.
First, a perfect example of Option A – the positive (candidate-focused) ad:
“Morning Again in America”
Ronald Reagan vs. Walter Mondale, 1984
“It’s morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”
Why It Works
This comes down to the age-old question that presidential hopefuls often ask:
Are you better off today than you were four years ago?
In this case, the economy had turned around drastically during Reagan’s first term. Reagan’s point was that electing his opponent Walter Mondale, who had served as Vice President under Jimmy Carter, would undo that progress – returning the country to the economic malaise of the Carter years.
Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater, 1963
Here, a three-year-old girl is seen picking petals off a flower, counting to ten. And yet at “ten,” another voice takes over and begins a countdown – a countdown to a nuclear explosion.
The ad ends with “Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”
While Johnson had pledged to deescalate the war in Vietnam, Goldwater supported the war and had not even ruled out the use of nuclear weapons.
Why it Works
The surprising pivot from a cute little girl in a field to the specter of nuclear annihilation.
Then there are the creative ads, the ads that are funny or unusual enough to provoke real emotion and inspire people to action perhaps even beyond the voting booth.
Missouri voters were treated to just such a new classic this weekend, when Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (D) published this ad in his bid to un-seat incumbent Senator Roy Blunt (R).
Jason Kander vs. Roy Blunt, 2016
Kander, who served in Afghanistan as part of the Missouri National Guard, is shown assembling an AR-15 assault rifle while blindfolded. While doing so, he explains his control stance, that while he supports 2nd Amendment rights, he also believes in background checks “so that terrorists can’t get their hands on one of these.”
He ends the video, rifle now fully assembled, by removing his blindfold and challenging Sen. Blunt, who has been “attacking me on guns,” to “do this.”
The video went viral, clocking more than 850,000 views on YouTube in its first 5 days, and earning coverage in publications including ABC News, Fox, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and dozens more.
Why It Works
- Watching someone piece together a gun while blindfolded is impressive and memorable.
- The narrative is counter-intuitive, as Kander’s words juxtapose details of his military service in Afghanistan with his current gun control stance.
- The expertise displayed by Kander demonstrates that he understands and enjoys guns, even while espousing a liberal view on them.
- Finally, his challenge to incumbent Sen. Blunt at the end simply underscores Blunt’s own lack of military service. Blunt avoided serving in the Vietnam War because he received three student deferments.
Kander may ultimately lose his race for the U.S. Senate this term.
But it doesn’t matter.
With this brilliant ad and the massive national coverage its received, he has announced himself as a rising star in Democratic political circles.
He’s likely to be around for a very long time.