BPI Media
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BPI Media

Negative Ads Work Best! And Other Lies About the 2020 Election Cycle

by Alex Kellner and Christina Sheffey

We make political ads for a living and we can’t blame battleground state residents if they are sick of political ads by now. In an election that will see several billions of dollars in political advertising, certain voters were absolutely inundated. A suburban Detroit voter, one of the most highly sought after targets in the country, saw on average 69 political ads every single day in October- one ad every 6 minutes on TV and 14.5 minutes online.

And voters are spending more time online in a cycle where creating quality, engaging digital advertising has never been more challenging. COVID-19 upended almost every aspect of the political process, including our ability to film ads safely, creating an ecosystem even more heavily reliant on news clips, stock footage, and animation than in normal cycles.

It’s also impossible to ignore how the combination of COVID and Trump made this cycle unlike any other.

The long-held rationale that negative ads are the ads voters remember and therefore are the most persuasive simply didn’t hold true. The data showed us early on that it was imperative to make an active, positive case for candidates we supported, not just against candidates we don’t.

In sum: Audiences are seeing political ads what feels like every second. The ads are all using the same approach, so they blend together. And political ad makers are facing not only traditional challenges (time, budget) but also new, COVID-related challenges (remote work, strict production and travel limitations) which upended long-held industry rules.

Which brings us to: How can you create ads that get noticed among the noise and actually persuade voters?

Connect to Voter’s Lives and Tell a Story They Can Identify With

Too many political ads tell don’t show — but the age old maxim of “show don’t tell” can be an incredibly effective change of pace for political ads. It’s notoriously difficult to connect politicians’ promises to real people’s lives in an emotionally resonant way; we worked with Unite the Country to marshal our production resource in a smart, COVID-safe production, to show how Joe Biden’s policies will help real families begin to build generational wealth through an emotional spot featuring a real-life couple buying their first home.

Tie Into a Pop Culture Trend That Voters Care About

We analyzed the TV watching habits of our older youth voter audience and the number one show they watched was The Bachelor franchise. To capitalize on that and grab their attention, we used a similar visual style to the show’s famous trailers to make the case for why those voters should vote for Joe Biden. We launched the spot in coordination with the premier of this season of The Bachelorette and ran the ad on YouTube channels that discussed and recapped news about the show for added effect.

We saw similar success when working with the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights to help audiences understand their voting rights- and why it was important for them to show up to the polls. In an effort to reach young men, we created an ad specifically design for Twitch inspired by the upcoming game and movie, 2077, to tie their known interests to the client’s goal of turning out voters.

Use Humor As A Change of Pace

Yes, the outcome of our elections are a serious business that has real life consequences for voters; but that doesn’t mean that we can’t use a lighter touch to get voters to pay attention. This works because it runs counter to voters expectations for political content and helps break through the noise. Humor can be particularly effective at delivering a negative message, like this spot designed to show Southwestern Michigan voters that their Congressman is beholden to special interests and doesn’t care about them:

Don’t Rely On The Same Tired Stock Footage

If you have to use stock footage or news clips, find a hook. With the right music and narrative, this ubiquitous footage doesn’t have to feel tired to voters. We saw success using packages of stock footage that were shot together so that we could tell a story that felt authentic despite not having the ability to capture bespoke imagery:

Similarly, by adding a visual treatment inspired by TikTok and Instagram creator videos, we were able to take news footage and produce an ad that stood out and evoked an emotional response:

And we used motion graphics to create more visual interest when our image options were limited:

Tie Into Content Voters Are Already Consuming Online

Sometimes political ads are easy to tune out because they look so different from all of the other content — paid and organic — that voters are seeing online. To counter that, we capitalized on the popular meme of ASMR Videos (footage of very soothing every day tasks or whispered narration) to capture voters attention and establish the value of Joe Biden’s platform with persuadable voters. For added effect, we ran this ad on a popular Reddit channel dedicated to the “oddly satisfying” videos that inspired the spot:

Let Voters Help You Help Them

Political groups explored new approaches reliant on user generated content (UGC). The most prevalent were selfie-style testimonials; but, much like standard testimonial spots, these began to blend together almost immediately. The smartest groups took advantage of their social media communities and crowdsourced fun, interesting and unexpected UGC that got their followers engaged and led to some great ads.

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