We are weeks away from midterm voting; you are probably hearing how important and historic this midterm election is, and it is. It’s quite cliché, but I don’t think I can write a piece that even superficially touches upon politics without mentioning how important it is that everyone vote. However, this piece is not a didactic advisory on voting, but an inspection of what catalyzes us to vote. No, not our morals or ideological belief systems, not even partisanship. It’s something much more visual and perhaps less understood.
For me, the campaign ad is elusive. Coming from New York City, my congressperson is almost a given: They have been in Washington for the last 12 years, their incumbency is cemented. So, as I watch cable, my also vegetative state is never interrupted by the catastrophic octaves of piano music or the urgency of a man who doubts the moral underpinnings of the establishment. I cannot remember a time when my relaxation was broken by a call to fix democracy. However, I do not know if this is a privilege or a loss: perhaps I am missing out on a tenet of our political system. This inexperience led me to wonder about the anatomy of a political ad. What makes them special? How can a two-minute video of people harping on their opponents’ flaws or montages of evocative photos help people choose a candidate? I can’t call myself a political scientist but a question that piqued my interest most is, which of these videos become viral? Every year we see someone like Rebecca Black pop up on our phones—maybe their speaking voice has been auto-tuned into a song, or they fell down eight flights of stairs, but people and cats and food are perpetually going viral. So, what is it about a certain political ad that catches the eye of America?
In order to explore this question, I chose two ads that I have been shown by friends and family alike, over and over. One is for Republican Brian Kemp, who is a gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, and the other for Democrat David Brill, who is running for Congress in Arizona’s 4th district.
The Georgia gubernatorial race is currently considered a tossup, with money pouring in from all over the nation to support Kemp and his Democratic rival, Stacey Abrams. Kemp is grizzle— maybe he was handsome a few decades ago. He loves flannel and has a deep voice. But most of all, Kemp loves weapons. He simply cannot make an ad where he is not holding a gun. (His favorite seems to be the shotgun.) His hands are just glued to weaponry of all kinds: In his ad titled “So Conservative,” Kemp wields a chainsaw as he talks about “ripping up” economic regulations. For me, it was a bit too on the nose. Kemp could learn more about subtlety. But I guess subtlety just isn’t his thing.
My favorite Kemp ad of all is “Jake.” Jake looks to be in his early twenties, has mousy brown hair and also has Kemp’s penchant for flannel. But, Jake doesn’t look to be having quite as much fun as Kemp is in Kemp’s ad. Jake’s eyes dart around feverishly as if he is looking for relief; maybe it’s a call for help? Jake, we understand. It probably is not that comfortable to look into a camera and smile as your girlfriend’s father points a gun at you. Yes, that is correct: Kemp is a caring father. He cares so much that he is willing to point a shotgun in the direction of his potential future son-in-law. Jake consistently looks at the floor. Is it an escape? No. Jake, hang in there. The ad eventually turns to a long shot, and there is the big reveal. The entire room is covered in guns. Next to Kemp there is a table covered with pistols. In front of him, a lovely wooden table covered in rifles and in the background a lovely portrait of his two daughters nestled between even more guns. All I could think about was who decorated this house. It seems so cluttered. Kemp could just go to Ikea and buy some storage containers. But I guess Kemp has his own sense of design.
The ad ends with Kemp asking Jake what he needs to date Kemp’s daughter. Jake answers promptly as if his life is being threatened, and perhaps it is, by the shotgun in his face. Jake responds, “Respect and a healthy appreciation for the second amendment!” It does make you wonder what “healthy” really means. For Kemp, “healthy” is clearly that a household requires ten times more guns than people. At the last second, Kemp cocks the gun up at Jake. Jake shoots one last pleading glance to the camera and the video cuts to nostalgic portraits of Kemp’s daughters. Kemp’s thirty-second ads are a roller coaster. Whether he is talking about his tendency for political incorrectness in front of explosions or just leaning on a pick-up truck, you cannot shake the feeling that Kemp just wants to join the A-Team. It makes sense that Kemp went viral. In all honesty, he comes off as an offbeat joke, a hilarious but disturbing parody. One of Kemp’s more anapestic lines is “I am so conservative, I blow up government spending.” Grammatically, this is one of Kemp’s more complicated sentences and it is supplemented with a contained explosion in the background.
Kemp maintains a certain simplicity: He offers up no policy proposals and doesn’t explain any of his political background. His speech sounds as though it was strung together from a Dinesh D’Souza film. Kemp is obviously more of an artist or wordsmith than a policymaker. Kemp’s seem as though they were made by a 7-year-old with access to iMovie and a lot of guns, but I do understand why they became so popular. He says absolutely nothing of importance, he focuses on aesthetics (guns and explosions) and proves that he is a caring (if frightening) family man. Kemp’s ads are easily consumable and if you really are watching Cheers reruns on cable and your mind is wholly numb, I am sure that Kemp comes across as trustworthy in government.
Family drama is always entertaining and politics only exacerbates these divides. David Brill, a Democrat in Arizona, decided to take advantages of these familial chasms. Brill, a man molded in the form of a teddy bear, does not make an appearance until the very end. He stands next to his equally smiley and wife, says “I endorse this message,” and the video cuts to black. Clearly, Brill also does not have too much to say about policy, nor does he feel the need to introduce himself. But Brill is not the star of this ad. The stars are the family of Paul Gosar, Brill’s opponent: David, Jennifer, Joan, Grace, Gaston, and Tim. At first, it isn’t clear who this bunch of sweater-clad (or Patagonia-clad) men and women perched in various bucolic landscapes are. They all simply demand that voters eschew Paul Gosar. And then it comes. One by one all of the siblings reveal their last name. They make it clear that they do not want to be associated with their brother or his belief system.
I immediately wondered how awkward any type of Gosar family reunion would be. How can one make conversation once you denounce your brother on national television? I mean, the viral nature of this ad explains itself. If six of your nine siblings denounce you on television, you’re probably doing something wrong. The most visible problem with this ad is that it does not highlight any of Brill’s skills, talents, or beliefs. Once again, it seems as though the ad is so successful because it avoids politics. It only indulges family drama and contains no political rhetoric. None of Gosar’s siblings mention his alignment with far-right politicians or his support for incendiary conspiracy theories. Brill’s ad finds success in simplicity; it is an attack and nothing else. Just like Kemp’s ad it makes no mention of politics, not even much attention to appreciate Brill’s ad.
What we can conclude from this is that the key to success is simplicity. Emblematic imagery (Kemp’s explosions) and unadulterated attacks (family takedowns) are components of going viral. It is hard to believe that these ads could influence voters; both, while entertaining, do not offer much about the candidates at hand. I do not have a moralistic evaluation of this absence of complication but it is rather frightening that the most popular ads don’t put forward any administrative changes or ways to appease their voters. It is clear, though, that these ads are of the utmost importance given that candidates scramble to raise millions of dollars in order to air as many ads as possible. The abundance of money amalgamated with the unabashed simplicity of these ads will continue to produce viral videos that captivate those from across any political spectrum. The question remains, is this beneficial? It is a good sign that people are captivated by the simplest messages? After watching these two ads and many others, I do not think that one straightforward answer exists. It is easy to pontificate about how simplicity equates a lack of knowledge but maybe these ads exist in order to facilitate the understanding of these candidates. Whether the ad makes the politician a recognizable caricature or explains an opponent’s obvious faults; it seems that the goal is to captivate, to gain attention as fast as possible. Garnering attention is the ultimate goal of these ads. Given the established partisanship that permeates our political system, I cannot believe that these ads exist in order to change people’s minds about policy and partisan politics, rather their goal is to make a candidate as noticeable as possible. Their name needs to be remembered, in conversation and on the ballot. Though going viral surely has the potential to make you a laughing stock, it also propagates your name. I must qualify that while these ads seem to be inherently attention seeking, I do not think that this should be their ambition. Quite clearly, a more informed citizenry that is exposed to and understands their candidate’s positions and objectives is a better one. Ads should, emphasis on should, explain a candidate’s intentions clear to their constituency but as we see, this is not always the case.