To subscribe to the monthly C&E email newsletter and event announcements click here.
Political ad makers are gearing up for what’s expected to be a frantic midterm cycle with early TV buys and a flurry of Democratic challenger campaigns given the anti-Trump energy on the left.
But when it comes to framing, one question to ask is whether there’s room for humor in spots that take on Trump and the GOP during the midterm cycle. At least one top Democratic ad maker thinks her side’s candidates should steer clear of overly creative spots this cycle in favor of a more straightforward straightforward anti-Trump message.
“It’s hard to know where we will be a year from now, but it’s my guess that if voters are engaged and following politics, understanding the impact of the decisions the president is making, we’re going to find voters receptive to a tone that is very sober and very direct,” said Martha McKenna, a Democratic media consultant.
A sober message might run counter to how politics currently features in pop culture. In fact, political satire is now enjoying a Golden Age. NBC’s Saturday Night Live hired Alec Baldwin specifically to play the president, and had Melissa McCarthy returning almost weekly to parody former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s briefings. Those skits proved so popular Spicer was invited to make an appearance at the Emmys last month.
Some office holders have tried to get in on the act. For instance in June, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) tweeted out a video mocking Trump’s cabinet meeting where officials went around the room praising the president. And during the recent special House election in Georgia’s 6th district, the DCCC released a spot, “Karen Handel: Living The High Life,” that mocked the Republican rival to Jon Ossoff in a dizzying animation of cars, “luxury” SUVs, planes and limousines.
McKenna, who has her own self-titled shop, is warning campaigns that approach might not work as well in 2018.
“When push comes to shove in these elections and we’re talking to swing voters, I think we’re going to be well served to have a serious tone because we are talking about the president of the United States, and we are talking about really critical issues in people’s lives,” McKenna told C&E.
The SNL-type humor, she said, “might help raise money, might help get clicks, drive views on Facebook, but really isn’t what will win elections in the long run because of the seriousness of the issues at stake.”
In an early video from the campaign of a high profile congressional challenger, noted Democratic admaker Mark Putnam made “standing up to the president” a central part of the message.
Democrat and Marine vet Amy McGrath, who’s running against Republican Rep. Andy Barr in Kentucky, used this appeal in a biographical campaign video: “Every Republican congressman and senator has to make a choice,” she said. “Standing up to the president may not be what they signed up for, but when the president is in solidarity with white supremacists and Nazis, those members of Congress have to stand up and tell him he’s wrong. They need to tell him this is not what America stands for.”
For her part, McKenna is famous for cutting animated spots for clients, but said she plans to steer her roster away from that creative this cycle.
“There have been moments in previous cycles when it was good to make light of politics, use some sort of humor to break through,” she said. “For voters right now, the stakes are so high and the issues that we’re talking about are so intense that animated ads generally could be seen as distasteful, or making light of this moment in time when many people are feeling vulnerable.”
While some ad makers may be reluctant to take a more lighthearted approach this campaign cycle, there’s still the challenge of getting a message to break through.
“Heavens no,” said GOP media consultant Fred Davis when asked if ad makers are more likely to steer clear of humor in 2018. “Humor is used to attract eyeballs. That will always be important. Just that not everyone is funny.”
For campaigns looking to avoid risky creative, McKenna advised, when targeting swing voters, to provide "information in a way that is straightforward and more workman-like.
"I could see us using straightforward facts, in a straightforward style, to have them come to a conclusion on their own instead of making light of the situation," she said.
She likened 2018 to 2006, a swing year when Democrats retook control of Congress with ads that tied GOP incumbents to President Bush. McKenna said that same formula could work this cycle: "It’s going to come down to holding members of Congress accountable for the percentage of time they vote with Donald Trump and asking voters for more of a check and balance.”