Even if you haven’t heard of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and MJ Hegar, you’ve probably seen them.
The women, candidates for the U.S. House in New York and Texas after winning their primaries, star in a current crop of viral campaign videos that are captivating online viewers and, just maybe, redefining the form.
In “The Courage to Change,” Ocasio-Cortez narrates a capsule history of her life, recounting how she was born in the Bronx, worked as an educator, organizer and waitress and became a candidate because “every day gets harder for working families like mine to get by.” Directed by Rachel Lears and composed of lyrical images of Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow New Yorkers going about their workaday lives, the two-minute video builds to a stirring finish, with a disarmingly candid moment of the candidate switching shoes on a subway platform intercut with shots of rousing speeches and inspired crowds.
Even more galvanizing is “Doors,” a 3½-minute video in which Hegar, a former Air Force pilot, describes a near-fatal helicopter accident in Afghanistan, her childhood with an abusive father and fighting the Pentagon to secure ground combat positions for women. Clearly inspired by the work of Martin Scorsese, director Cayce McCabe seamlessly edits the video to resemble one continuous shot, as the chapters of Hegar’s life gracefully mesh and call back to each other while a deconstructed version of “Gimme Shelter” plays in the background.
As political spots, “The Courage to Change” and “Doors” effectively acquit their mission, which is to introduce two unknowns to their would-be constituents. As examples of how cinematic craft and production values infuse and inform contemporary political rhetoric, these short-subject documentaries exemplify visual storytelling at its most exquisite and economical.
Between the two of them, “Doors” and “The Courage to Change” have been seen around 3 million times on YouTube, representing something of a watershed moment during this midterm season. But this is by no means the first time that campaign advertising has leveraged film language and communications technology so effectively. In 1960, crooner and movie star Frank Sinatra sang “High Hopes” in ads for John F. Kennedy. By 1964, the vernacular had gotten decidedly edgier when Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign produced “Daisy,” in which a little girl plucks the petals from a flower while counting to herself. As she reaches “ten,” she looks up, the frame freezes and the camera zooms in on her eye, culminating in an exploding mushroom cloud.
The one-minute ad, which tacitly accused Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, of being an irrational warmonger, was broadcast only once on NBC. Excoriated for going too far, the Johnson campaign quickly pulled it. Still, an estimated 50 million people had watched as a darling little girl in a meadow was symbolically annihilated by a nuclear bomb — and the number doubled when, under pressure, the Johnson campaign pulled the ad and all three networks reported on the controversy.
Goldwater is never mentioned by name in the “Daisy” ad; its creators understood the first rule of horror films, which is that the scariest monster is the one the audience concocts in their heads. A few years later, Robert F. Kennedy would enlist such filmmakers as Charles Guggenheim, Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker and John Frankenheimer to create ads for his 1968 presidential campaign, clips of which can be seen in the absorbing Netflix documentary series “Bobby Kennedy for President.” Using the cinema-verite style for which Pennebaker would become famous with the Bob Dylan documentary “Don’t Look Back,” the Kennedy of these ads was a rock star in his own right, captured at his most self-deprecating, candid and warm, whether he was charming a living room full of skeptical Indiana farm wives or speaking gently and respectfully to a group of schoolchildren about the scourges of nuclear war and environmental destruction.
For the ensuing half century, candidates would attempt, with varying degrees of success, to speak the visual language of their moment. Sometimes they’ve had to be bilingual: Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign announcement in 2007 straddled two visual cultures, evincing the lush, soft-focus production values of a Nancy Meyers rom-com but widely seen on YouTube, then a relatively new and untested platform.
It was Clinton’s opponent, Barack Obama, who would master that medium. Appropriately enough, Obama’s most memorable ad, Will.I.Am’s “Yes We Can” video, wasn’t an official campaign production but user-generated content. (Four years later, Herman Cain and Mitt Romney would have their own viral moments, not always for desirable reasons.) Donald Trump, for his part, barely needed campaign ads at all: Already known to an American public steeped in reality TV, he merely had to stage a rally for an all-too-willing press to show up, as much for entertainment value as hard news.
In advertising parlance, that’s called “earned media,” which means it’s free. And that’s the great value of such videos as “The Courage to Change” and “Doors” going viral: Rather than pay for expensive TV spots, Ocasio-Cortez and Hegar can let novelty and sheer artistry build the buzz. This is particularly crucial at the outset of their primary campaigns, when they have a chance to define themselves before their opponents are able to, and before super-PAC money floods the general election.
The one-minute scare spot might be an artifact of the past, but the multiplier effect is the same: Get people talking, in this case by understanding that today’s endlessly streaming, cinema-literate viewers are as likely to respond to formal excellence as substantive content. Ocasio-Cortez and Hegar have brilliantly harnessed political tradition and of-the-moment signifiers to create awareness, enthusiasm and momentum (Frank Sinatra, meet the Stones). Like the movies and pop culture icons they reference, “The Courage to Change” and “Doors” succeed, not just because of their subjects’ compelling personal stories, but because of masterful, you’ve-gotta-see-this execution. Even though these candidates are newcomers, they possess the instinct of the old pros who know that advertising can be artful — and certainly effective — but old-fashioned ballyhoo is priceless.