ANATOMY OF THE CINEMATIC PROFILE: What Does it Take to Make Viral Political Ads?
In 2017, a new kind of campaign ad disrupted the digital politics landscape, racking up views and shares that would make most professional influencers jealous. Think Richard Ojeda, Randy “IronStache” Bryce, and AOC.
I say a new kind of ad, because these videos and numerous others share a good many formal and narrative traits. Whether they followed or invented this formula, there is a formula. And in many instances, that formula was hugely successful. For anyone looking to replicate or build on that formula, or simply understand its impact, it’s worth understanding what makes these videos work.
This particular formula involves a few classic story beats, a few Hollywood cinema techniques that heighten emotional engagement, and a few documentary conventions that help achieve authenticity — something that, in this cultural moment, audiences are famously thirsty for.
In the era of social-media, it makes sense that we might see a rising genre of video that acts as an intentional, if implicit, response to the carefully contrived, quickly digestible personas presented in traditional campaign ads. Where the old product was mass-market, the new product, which I call the cinematic profile, is artisanal — requiring the willingness of the candidates to let audiences glimpse their actual lives, however strategically, and thereby creating an image of themselves as open, accessible people with real problems and real emotions, while at the same time rendering those relatable tribulations into the stuff of inspirational tearjerkers.
Before we get into what makes the videos work, let’s take a moment to make sure we’re clear on which videos exhibit this style.
I’ve identified a selection of 12 videos that represent at least some aspects of the cinematic profile. A few of the strongest of these overlap to such a degree that it’s fair to view them as sort of the Platonic ideal for the category, and they form the basis of my analysis:
The rest are either successful ads that benefit from characteristics they share with the more “pure” examples (close cousins) or ads that don’t work as well despite employing similar techniques (close but no cigar). Looking at this range of samples will help us better understand what makes the great ones great, and why the others didn’t quite rise to that level.
Though these evaluations are largely subjective — a couple of the close cousins, for instance, didn’t necessarily make a huge splash — I’ve also considered more objective metrics like Youtube views, Facebook shares and press coverage when determining what “works.”
CINEMATIC PROFILE: CORE NARRATIVE
In broad strokes, as exemplified by the “pure” videos, the cinematic profile conforms to a simple narrative: triumph over adversity. This can take the form of the classic underdog story, the reluctant warrior, the wounded or aggrieved’s quest for wholeness or justice, etc.
Basically, the protagonist (i.e., the candidate) has experienced suffering, either personally, or by proxy. They are facing a more powerful opponent: their literal opponent in the race, a class of people, and/or an entrenched system. They will call upon the strength that has gotten them this far to win the day and right the very wrongs that have been the source of their suffering and yours.
For AOC, the adversity was the struggle of growing up in a working class neighborhood, and the adversary is the economic elite and establishment democrats.
For Richard Ojeda the congressional candidate, the adversity was being brutally assaulted (it’s implied that the motive was political) and the adversary is anyone who wants to beat up on the little guy.
For Randy Bryce, the adversity is his mother’s illness, and the adversary is Paul Ryan and his repeal-and-replace agenda.
For Fetterman, the adversity is the economic decline of his hometown, and the adversaries, as personified by Trump, are the state and federal legislators whose neglect has caused that decline.
What is the political strength of this core narrative? Story experts have argued that advertising should position the customer (in this case, voter) as the hero of their own story with the advertiser (the candidate) acting as their guide, helping them to get what they want — the Obi Wan Kenobi to the customer’s Luke Skywalker. This is tremendously insightful, the point that situating the brand as the hero of the story can alienate the customer, since the customer might not get as excited to be part of the brand’s story as he or she would get to be the hero of his or her own story. But the cinematic profile manages a similar trick via a different route. It deftly positions the candidate and the voter as the hero.
In most stories we are meant to identify with the protagonist, but in these cinematic profiles the connection between audience and hero is explicit and profound. Shared pain, shared humanity, shared enemy, shared goals. It’s the relationship between someone and their champion. Their fight literally is your fight, and their literal job is to represent you. Yes, you want to see yourself in them for aspirational and cathartic reasons, for the vicarious thrill of victory, but the more the candidate is recognizably similar to yourself, the more trust you have that they will act on your behalf once elected — and the easier it is for you to believe in one more shared experience: triumph, and with it, the easing of your pain.
In addition, because the candidate cannot succeed without the voter, the audience is a true participant in the narrative. It’s like if your thundersticks or rally cap really could ensure your team’s victory, if clapping for Tinkerbell actually could bring fairies back to life. Unlike with sports or fiction, in elections, your desires are transubstantiated into a mote of agency. You can vote, volunteer, or donate, and that action has a tiny but concrete effect on outcomes. That’s powerful and magical — and these ads leverage that.
Now, let’s look at how the core narrative of triumph over adversity is communicated through 1) the ad’s structure and 2) a central framing device.
1. NARRATIVE: STRUCTURE
Typically, the cinematic profile plots the narrative in three sections.
It tends to begin with the problem, the source of the adversity, suffering or pain.
It transitions into a personal account of how the protagonist has overcome or been shaped by these circumstances…
…and from there into the trials and tribulations faced by the ordinary people (you, the audience or audience surrogates) the candidate hopes to represent. Sometimes this suffering is shared directly by the candidate, and sometimes the connection is symbolic or metaphorical.
Next, the adversary is identified, a shared enemy of both the candidate and the voter. The ad makes it clear that said adversary is responsible for the suffering the candidate (and to some extent, you) have suffered.
Finally, the candidate promises to fight the opponent, drawing on their (already demonstrated) strength and yours. Onward to victory.
The details differ, of course — these stories belong to different people after all — and sometimes the beats are presented in a different order. Bryce’s ad, for instance, begins with clips of Trump and Paul Ryan before launching into his personal story, establishing the adversary by implication at the outset. Ojeda’s, as you may have noticed from the examples above, intersperses bonafides and promises to fight throughout, ending with a less direct promise of championship and a final evocation of the adversary. But for the most part the cinematic profile follows this formula.
2. NARRATIVE: FRAMING DEVICE
Several of these ads, especially the close cousins, also make use of a framing device, throughline, or central symbol, metaphor, theme or motif.
AOC’s suggests that we are experiencing a single day in her life — we see her in her apartment wrapping up her morning routine at the top of the ad, and at the end, she’s arriving at a family member’s apartment for a late dinner, wearing the same dress she’s had on for the majority of the ad. This works to reinforce her identity as an average New Yorker, her life as literally quotidian.
MJ Hegar’s “Doors” unsurprisingly uses doors as a throughline — opening line of her ad: “This is a story about doors.” After the camera takes us through her front door, the next door we see is propped against her dining room wall, and it belongs to the helicopter she was piloting when she was shot down in Afghanistan. And on from there, as doors are used as both visual and narrative (and, of course, symbolic) elements to carry us through Hegar’s story.
“Richard Ojeda for President” is bookended by a poem Ojeda’s daughter wrote, and though more subtle in it’s construction than “Doors,” it also carries a one-word theme: duty.
CINEMATIC PROFILE: STYLISTIC ELEMENTS
There’s nothing about the visual and auditory grammar of the cinematic profile that’s particularly groundbreaking in and of itself. The ads draw heavily from documentary and feature film, and not just in the way that virtually all visual storytelling utilizes the basic tools of classical Hollywood cinema to convey information. We’re not talking about the kinds of techniques that are so ubiquitous we don’t even think about them as being techniques — like using close-ups to tell us what to pay attention to and heighten emotional intimacy, or relying on the Kuleshov effect to ensure that the audience derives meaning from two shots in sequence, mentally connecting the two.
What we’re talking about is the intentional use of style that reads as “like a documentary” or “like a movie,” where documentary-like conveys truth and authenticity and movie-like conveys drama and emotional resonance. (Neither documentary nor narrative film are homogenous or even discrete categories, but these broad designations will suffice for the purposes of this analysis.)
Documentary informs the style of the cinematic profile in several ways. Visually, there’s a tendency toward handheld photography, natural light, imperfect focus transitions and real, mundane, un- or barely dressed locations. No doubt, this choice extends beyond the purely aesthetic. Often shot with minimal scripts, these ads feature real people, and are being produced not unlike a documentary — it wouldn’t be feasible to follow a candidate around all day with multiple cameras, a large crew, and a truck full of lights.
But, it’s still a choice to produce it that way. Just think of the traditionally stilted campaign ad with a candidate in a suit or sweater speaking directly to camera from a scenic prairie or diner full of extras, intercut with obviously staged b-roll. By contrast, the cinematic profile features documentary interview setups with the candidate and/or their families and constituents, with sound from these interviews providing the narration for the rest of the ad — narration that runs over b-roll that at least appears candid.
J.D. Belcher, the filmmaker who produced Ojeda’s ads, deliberately opted for a small crew, sometimes no crew, when he wanted to put Ojeda and family even more at ease and get them to lower their guard, like in the section where Kelly Ojeda talks about the attack on her husband.
Another good example comes from the less well-known presidential campaign ad, where Ojeda’s father reads a poem by Ojeda’s daughter to Ojeda himself as they sit in his living room.
It would be fair to assume this situation was contrived, that Ojeda Sr., didn’t just feel a sudden urge to pick up that poem one night to read aloud when there happened to be a camera around. But, it was contrived in such a way as to elicit sincere responses from the subjects — a tactic a documentary producer would employ.
AOC’s voiceover, though scripted, is written by her and recorded in her apartment, not a booth, and the result is a delivery that sounds like she’s actually talking to someone and believes what she’s saying.
Now let’s turn to the more “cinematic” elements. On the most basic level, the cinematic influence in these ads can be seen in the photography. In a word, the cinematography is pretty — like in the movies. The lighting, though often natural, looks great, the compositions are artful, there are steadicam/gimbal and dolly/slider shots and magic hour drone flyovers.
We see 24p frame rates and shallow depth of field, well known and oft deployed facets of the cinema look, but there’s also a marked use (in exactly half of the selected videos) of ultra widescreen and anamorphic photography, which still screams, “you are watching a big movie!” even to audiences that have become used to seeing those other techniques on tv and the internet.
These cinematic visuals prime the audience to feel by leveraging the associations people have with movies and the emotions they experience while watching them. And not just “movies” in general — these ads take it a step further by referencing certain film genres, thereby intensifying the emotional punch.
Given the narrative thrust of the ads, a few genres emerge as a natural fit, but for me, one interesting genre rises to the surface: the sports film. Especially, though by no means exclusively, Friday Night Lights and Rocky.
You can see it in the pervasive use of slow motion photography…
…and the montages that loosely evoke training montages — or in the case of Ojeda’s congressional campaign ad, a literal training montage. We get slow-build inspirational voiceover that recalls a rousing half-time speech.
And then there’s the music. Pretty good music. Each ad is underscored by a single track from start to finish. With only a few exceptions, they begin slowly and quietly, poignant and nostalgic, then build with the narration, getting louder and introducing percussion and major chords. And again, though there are likely other examples, for all intents and purposes, these songs are near-perfect stand-ins, give or take a steel guitar or piano, for the Explosions in the Sky track that plays under Billy Bob Thornton’s “clear eyes, full hearts” speech from Friday Night Lights.
But the underdog narrative, with its themes of fighting and struggle, also features prominently in war movies, historical epics and biopics — and tropes, visual and otherwise, from those genres seep into the cinematic profile as well. Perhaps it would be more precise to say that the cinematic profile resembles the trailers for these movies, presenting the story arc in miniature and montage.
One more niche cinematic touchstone, whether a direct reference or a few degrees separated, are the films of Terrence Malick. His drifty, dreamlike, always gorgeous photography is a visual match certainly, and his films often feature internal monologue over montage, much like the cinematic profile does. His films are lauded for touching the soul with a pensive poetry and existential humanity. It’s this quality that makes Malick a shrewd crib. Borrowing from his visual style is a shortcut to poignancy.
While it wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that a few ads tweak the formula — as the formula is still a moving target — the close cousins all vary from the “pure” examples in one interesting way or another. Cory Booker’s and Richard Ojeda’s presidential campaign ads wander a step or two from the path, but Amy McGrath’s and MJ Hegar’s ads both made a bigger splash while straying even farther. Though the core narrative and structure of those latter two ads conforms to the mold, they take different stylistic approaches.
McGrath’s is shot like a traditional campaign ad. A former Marine fighter pilot, McGrath stands on the tarmac in a flight jacket with a fighter jet behind her. This straightforward setup is perhaps a missed opportunity, but it doesn’t matter because her story is so compelling. She was the first woman to fly an F/A-18 in a combat mission — so her ad may not look like a movie, but you can very easily imagine the movie about her life.
The ad’s script wisely doubles down on this accomplishment (and the accomplishments of her also-pioneering mother) — the same conservative male legislators who stood in her way 20 years ago when she was blazing trails as a Marine are the ones she’s looking to defeat now, despite the naysayers who say she “can’t win that battle.” Her mother survived polio and went into medicine as one of the first female graduates of UK med school, so McGrath has a personal stake in the healthcare fight as well. The authenticity and triumphant righteousness of her story overwhelms the perfectly fine, but comparatively less inspired, filmmaking.
Hegar’s ad, on the other hand, shoots right past conventional campaign ad and documentary realism, emphasizing the Hollywood-readiness of her story by coming closer to emulating a Scorcese film. The ad is almost all long steadicam shots ala Goodfellas and Casino. And underneath the first-person narration and sometimes darkly ironic re-enactments (like a brief section depicting the abuse suffered by Hegar’s mother), the music is a dead-ringer for “Gimme Shelter.” (Stock music repositories often offer songs that are ersatz soundalikes for more famous and expensive tracks — this one was probably called something like “Jagger Esque” or “Stone Roof.”) Scorsese has used “Gimme Shelter” to accompany narrated montages in at least three films, so while this choice is a little on the nose, it also sells the reference.
What the ad sacrifices in naturalism it gains in cool factor and ingenuity, and again the candidate’s true story is enough to make up the difference — as evinced by numerous celebrity retweets, multiple write-ups, and roughly 3 million Youtube views.
CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR
Not all variations on the theme yield results like McGrath’s and Hegar’s. There are a few examples of ads that don’t quite capture the magic, and their shortcomings are illustrative.
Gillum’s and Huffstetler’s ads both achieve the aesthetic — Gillum’s ad is especially handsome — and they both retain the core narrative elements of the cinematic profile, including descriptions of adversity and suffering. They’re lengthy, personal and more or less candid, but they both linger a little long on autobiographies that aren’t compelling enough to sustain that level of interest. As a result, they not only lose momentum, but they commit the classic narrative error of making the candidate the hero instead of the audience.
Hegar and McGrath are the clear protagonists of their respective ads, but their larger-than-life stories hew close enough to universal and well-trodden narratives that audience identification is almost automatic. We may not be able to relate to the pioneering, war hero specifics, but we’ve seen that movie before, and we’re used to pretending that we’re the star, or at least rooting for them. Gillum’s and Huffstetler’s stories, though common enough that we’ve likely shared some experiences with them in a more direct way than with Hegar and McGrath, lack the same archetypal appeal, so it feels more like watching someone talk about themselves. Maybe you find them appealing, maybe you don’t — but either way, it’s “them” and “you,” not “we.”
Salazar’s ad is similarly limited. The music is stirring enough, but it lacks the adversity component. Its budget may not have helped either — the image quality is a step (or two) down, much of the footage is underexposed, and the b-roll looks like the result of only two shoots. The team behind this might have done the best they could with the resources they had, but having only two shoots to draw from simply limits shot variety and relevance. It feels genuine but less polished, and like Gillum’s and Huffstetler’s, it wants a little drama.
Gabbard’s ad gets everything right but the humanity. It’s briefer than all of the other examples, and her narration, though engagingly delivered (it sounds like the filmmakers recorded a stump speech), stays high-level and nonspecific. Gabbard also doesn’t share her story in the ad, so, though she cuts a dashing figure, there’s little for an audience to grab onto and identify with. It’s possible this approach has its advantages, allowing people to project onto her whatever they want, but if authenticity is the goal, it only manages a veneer thereof.
SIDE NOTE: THE CANDIDATES
Of course, the candidates themselves play a large role in the success of these ads — a different kind of ad for a different kind of politician, right? But, not everyone who deserves a shot at office is a charismatic yet down-to-earth star whose life story has a Hollywood-ready hook. Not everyone is willing to let the filmmakers (and thus the audience) see them with their guard down. Not everyone is a populist fighting to lift up the downtrodden.
These are all important pieces, because if the ultimate goal is authentic emotional engagement, then the story has to be both good and true. If the narrative reference point is the idea of the people’s champion, then the candidate needs to credibly champion the interests of the people.
So, how can candidates who don’t necessarily meet the specifications benefit from this model? And this is really two questions: what if the candidate limits access or doesn’t come across as authentic, and what if their story/platform/vision doesn’t correspond with the core narrative tropes?
One potential authenticity work-around is incorporating additional characters who can act as surrogates. We see this in Ojeda’s and Bryce’s ads, though both of them are compelling enough in their own right. If the candidate is stiff or aloof, or hasn’t encountered suitable adversity, filmmakers could focus on the authentic, heartfelt stories of constituents, and weave in the candidate sparingly as the solution to their problems — placing the candidate more firmly in the role of a guide to the constituent’s (and the audience’s) hero.
But what if the candidate is charismatic, credible, and willing to let the audience in but isn’t a good fit with the cinematic profile narrative? While (fortunately) the core of triumph over adversity is endemic to almost every type of story, maybe the candidate isn’t an underdog, so the language of the sports movie is a mismatch.
The solution for candidates that don’t fit the underdog mold could be to pull from other inspirational genres that may be better suited to the candidate in question. Suppose the candidate is a wealthy business owner. Perhaps the adversity they face is the difficulty in balancing the demands of their enterprise with the desire to do right by the people in their community. The superhero genre might do their story more justice, with an appropriate wink and nod, or subtlety of application, so as not to come across as too big-headed.
Or perhaps the specifics of a candidate’s career can inform the style of story his or her campaign tells. Doctor? Borrow from medical drama. Lawyer? Borrow from legal dramas or police procedurals. There’s a genre for everything. The trick is to find one that you can marry with documentary, that is appropriate for the candidate, and that engage an audience. The filmmakers behind Hegar’s ad managed to appropriate the style of slick crime sagas, and they made it work!
Virality is like catching lightning in a bottle. Adhering to formula can’t guarantee results, and sometimes thinking way outside the box yields unexpected success. But the fact that several cinematic profiles have connected means there may well be something to them as a category. It can be difficult to isolate which elements of the alchemical admixture are the key ingredients and which are dross, but hopefully this analysis helps those considering pursuing something like this.
Should the space become flooded with cinematic profiles, and should we see their impact lessen as a result, I hope some of the insights here prove sturdy enough to help someone discover the next big thing.
Adam Goldstein is a senior video strategist with Clarify Agency.