'Action!' US campaign videos go viral in 2018

Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talks with supporters during her general campaign kick-off rally in September in the Bronx borough of New York.
Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talks with supporters during her general campaign kick-off rally in September in the Bronx borough of New York.
Image: Don EMMERT / AFP

An eye-popping $4.5 billion (R65 billion) is projected to pour into US political advertising in 2018, but a few thousand bucks last spring may have been the best-spent money of the entire midterm election cycle.

When working-class New Yorker and political newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez heard the offer by two socialist-leaning videographers to produce her introductory congressional campaign ad for under $10,000 (R1.5 million), her cash-strapped campaign jumped at the opportunity.

The result was a riveting, two-minute online video, with a persuasive voiceover by the then-28-year-old candidate who is shown changing into heels on a subway platform and making her case to voters.

"This race is about people versus money," Ocasio-Cortez says in the video released in late May. "We've got people. They've got money."

The ad - empathetic, defiant, authentic - was an instant hit, earning a staggering 5.1 million views.

Four weeks later Ocasio-Cortez shocked the political establishment by defeating a Democratic titan in their New York primary, a victory that reverberated nationally ahead of midterm elections November 6.

It also upended the notion of what smart political advertising can be, and how powerful digital campaigning has become.

Several first-time candidates, many of them Democrats seeking to reclaim the House of Representatives from President Donald Trump's Republicans, are cutting through the political noise and introducing themselves to voters online.

Indeed, 2018 has been the year of the viral campaign video.

Nick Hayes, co-founder of Detroit-based Means of Production which did the Ocasio-Cortez ad, said the rise of Internet platforms has been a godsend for new candidates.

"I think what social media and digital campaigning opened up is the ability for candidates who don't have $4 million from some corporation to be heard, and to be able to communicate with voters in a way that wasn't possible before," Hayes, 21, told AFP in an interview.

"By having a strong social media presence, by coming out with effective messaging, by staying on point and talking about working-class politics, you can topple these people, you know?"

Heroic stories

The "my story" videos have proven to be defining elements of several 2018 campaigns.

But those by Ocasio-Cortez and another woman running for Congress, US Air Force veteran MJ Hegar of Texas, are already considered masterpieces of the genre.

Hegar's 3.5-minute ad tells her heroic story, from being shot while piloting a search and rescue helicopter that crashed in Afghanistan - "I strapped myself to the skids, and returned fire on the Taliban while we flew to safety," she says - to her successful effort to break down barriers for women in the military.

Set to Rolling Stones rock music, the fast-paced "Doors" spot also addresses the domestic violence she experienced as a child, and the doors she forced open while rising through the ranks.

Broadway superstar Lin Manuel Miranda branded it "the best political ad anyone's ever seen."

But will it help Hegar defeat eight-term Republican John Carter in red-state Texas?

Hegar was largely unknown when she launced her campaign. After her ad went viral (nearly three million views and counting), campaign contributions poured in and her race tightened.

Democrats are not the only ones to embrace the genre.

Tennessee congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, running for US Senate, cut a long-form ad that makes controversial reference to what she called "the sale of baby body parts" by Planned Parenthood.

It was deemed too "inflammatory" by Twitter, which barred her from promoting the video on the platform until she removed the language.

Blackburn refused, and fundraised on the controversy.

Profound changes

It has been Democrats who by and large have exploited the long form to powerful effect.

It began in 2017, when an unknown iron-worker named Randy Bryce dropped a spellbinding campaign ad on YouTube, highlighting his mother's illness, his dedication to his craft, and an obsession with keeping his family insured.

Bryce's challenge is daunting: he is running in the Wisconsin district held by House Speaker Paul Ryan.

"Let's trade places, Paul Ryan. You can come work the iron, and I'll go to DC," Bryce says as music reaches a crescendo.

The stirring video set the tone for the midterms, and reminded other Democratic candidates of their mission to give voters compelling reasons to choose them over the status quo.

As the election nears, campaign ads fill Facebook, YouTube and other platforms.

"Social media has profoundly changed the way political campaigns communicate with voters," political consultant Neil Oxman, who has managed ad campaigns for hundreds of races since 1980, told AFP.

Digital advertising, projected to reach $800 million (R11554.68) this cycle according to Kantar Media, has begun to rival the $3.7 billion (R53.44 billion) broadcast and cable TV market.

"Now you can just see them for free on your phone," Oxman said.

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