Ayanna Pressley’s Victory and a New Era of Campaign Media
Ayanna Pressley’s victory over Mike Capuano in the Democratic Primary for Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District represents yet another iteration of an established incumbent losing their seat to a new voice. In a wave ushered in by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s dramatic upset in New York’s 14th Congressional District, the 2018 elections have featured younger, more diverse, and unapologetically progressive candidates finding success in high profile races. These candidates are redefining both what politicians look like, as well as what it looks like to run for office. These tactics are also revealing a new era of digital political advertising that is proving more effective than traditional methods.
Notably, candidates are realizing success by bypassing traditional television advertising in favor of campaign videos tailored to digital platforms. Three primary factors seem to be guiding this shift: 1) less people are watching TV, 2) TV advertising is limited in critical ways, and 3) TV spots are much more expensive. As it’s been well documented, more people are cutting the cord in favor of streaming services, and are generally spending more time on personal online devices. Unsurprisingly, some campaigns are following suit, shifting resources towards innovative content for digital platforms. TV ads are proving to be a relatively passive form of voter engagement. Digital media by contrast, includes built-in platforms for discussion — it is viewed on demand, shared, and used to start conversations. These conversations result in a plethora of social information that allow people to make sense of who a candidate is and what they represent. While information on social media is noisy and not always constructive, in the right situations it allows candidates to build momentum with unprecedented speed.
Advertising on television is also limited by rigid standards that often do not apply to digital media. While TV spots need to conform to a 30 or 60 second timeline, candidates can bypass these conventions in the digital space. A candidate might produce for example, longer, documentary-style content that with connects with voters in different ways. Media on digital platforms is also more flexible; as noted by Pressley’s campaign manager, digital video ads also allowed Ayanna to adapt on the fly to a race that was evolving every day. Pressley’s final video, “The Power of US”, for example, was created two weeks before the election, enabling the campaign to tweak their messaging and approach during their final push.
Cost is of course, another key distinction between online videos and television spots. Jahana Hayes, who won a primary for Congress last month, made a video for less than $20,000 that brought in $300,000 in donations. M. J. Hegar was similarly rewarded with $1 million in donations resulting from her highly acclaimed video “Doors” that cost $50,000 to produce. While the high production value of such videos from skilled filmmakers does not come cheap, it represents a fraction of the costs of creating an ad for TV and paying for airtime.
Another more elusive factor is that, especially for younger audiences, advertising that doesn’t look like a traditional commercial may be a more effective way of gaining traction. As younger generations increasingly demand authenticity from brands and companies they support, advertisers and political campaigns are tasked with producing content that differs from the standard campaign ad. While this presents a new kind of stylistic challenge, digital media provides a ready-made vehicle for this kind of experimentation and distribution. A campaign might have only one shot at getting it right with a TV spot — but with a strong digital video strategy, a candidate has the opportunity to make multiple connections with voters throughout every stage of the campaign trail.
The successful media strategies of Pressley, Ocasio-Cortez, Hegar and others, extend much further than a view count. In this new era of political campaign media, successful videos tell a story, engage and inform the viewer, and provide powerful social cues to help viewers understand the candidate and their values. While digital media is no substitute for a strong ground game and organizing strategy, they go hand in hand — by reinforcing one another, digital and on-the-ground engagement can provide the momentum necessary to build a movement and clear a path to victory.