Written by: Tyler Schwartz
In my inbox the other day I received a link to a recent campaign video for Democratic congressional candidate MJ Hegar. Upon watching, I can confidently say it’s one of the best campaign ads I’ve ever seen. What makes this video so unique and exciting is that it’s the rare political ad that doesn’t really talk about politics. Additionally, in a medium that often relies on politicians talking to camera and trying to tell their story, Hegar’s video succeeds in showing us her story by putting us inside of the action.
From my perspective, here are the three defining characteristics that separate this ad.
1. Stealing from Scorsese
The video opens with the viewer omnisciently floating through a front porch and entering a house. The background music sounds eerily like the opening chords of “Take Shelter” by The Rolling Stones and then the voice-over hits. These cinematic elements are all hallmarks of Martin Scorsese, and they help us peel back the curtain to see how the “Ad Sausage” gets made. Within the first 15 seconds of the video we get a classic Scorsese opening line ( MJ’s “This is a story about doors” = Goodfellas “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster”), followed by some classic Scorsese exposition. Before a single cut occurs, we learn that MJ lives in Texas, is married with children, and is a former Air Force Pilot. All within 10 seconds! Therein lies the power of cinematic voice over. We’ve barely met Hegar, and yet we’re already predisposed to trust her because she’s our narrator, and as viewers, we’re trained to believe that narrators always tell the truth. Compared to more run-of-the-mill Ads where a hired Voice Actor does the narration or a when the actual candidate themselves speak to the camera, this method allows the viewer to connect with MJ on a different level; she’s not a candidate, she’s a character.
2. Seamless Editing
At a run time of 3 minutes and 28 seconds, this video is longer than your typical campaign ad. The reason it doesn’t feel overlong is due to the seamless editing that guides the viewer throughout the story. Similar to what DP Emmanuel Lubezki and Director Alejandro Inarritu did with the film Birdman, the filmmakers here hide their edits with well timed whip pans, dissolves, and match cuts, creating a feeling of total engrossment for the viewer. The great editor Walter Murch once said that an editor’s job is to anticipate when a viewer is going to blink, at that moment is when a cut should occur. While there aren’t many “normal cuts” in this video, the filmmakers still allow room for “viewer blinking” by intentionally going static on certain images. The benefit of these brief moments of stillness are that they provide the audience with a “blink point”, which then works to solidify the visual theme on screen. Walter Murch again sums it up best when he says, “Blinking is some way of tabulating – a kind of carriage return, click, or save to disk – that helps the process of ‘Okay, now change the subject.’ Every time you move your eyes, there’s an interruption in the visual field – you go momentarily blind when your eyeballs are moving.”
When remembering this video, what are the images that stick in your memory? The helicopter door, the ROTC sign, Flight School, the Purple Heart, the Closed sign… all of those moments occurred during a “blink point”, yet because of the seamless editing, the emotional power of the images is digested entirely on a subconscious level. As the audience member, we’re tracking the story, but as potential voters, our minds return to these blinked “save points” and deliver us the information Hegar actually wants us to remember: She’s a Mother, an Air Force Pilot, a Purple Heart Recipient, a Feminist Lobbyist, and finally, she’s running for Congress.
3. Politics without Politics
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the entire Ad is the complete lack of politics mentioned within the video. There are no mentions of domestic policies or foreign affairs. No mentions of Trump, Obama, or Hillary. Not once does Hegar even mention that she’s running as a Democrat. The message here is simple, you’re not voting for MJ’s politics, you’re voting for MJ’s story. This is a tactic that has been used before for both good (Obama’s “Hope” campaign”) and evil (Trump’s “Make America Great Again). In both instances, voters were directed to vote with their hearts instead of their minds.
On a national scale this method can become overwhelmingly populist no matter who’s employing it. However, for a congressional seat, this heart-on-your-sleeve approach does its job in investing the viewer in Hegar’s story. If you’re really interested in her views on abortion or gun rights, there’s plenty of reading material online at your disposal. My guess is that Hegar’s team is betting that the average Texas voter doesn’t really care about policies. They’re not selling you a person’s politics, they’re selling you the person and believing in her is all that matters.
I had never heard of MJ Hegar before watching this video. I don’t live or ever plan on living in Texas. I’m not even a registered Democrat (I’m proudly independent). Yet, with all that stated, and even without really knowing what her true political views are, I’m fully prepared to vote for MJ Hegar. Why? Because I believe her. She comes across as no-nonsense and forthright and that’s what I want in my politicians. In the world of Trumpified politics, I believe the American people want truth and honesty. Hopefully come November, the good people Texas’s 31st district will give Hegar a chance to prove her motivations and sincerity. My feeling is that if they do, it’ll be because the power of visual storytelling opened the door to their political hearts.