Tucker Middleton, who was recently promoted to partner at Democratic shop Putnam Partners, LLC, believes the aesthetic of campaign ads has developed to the point where, at least for top-level candidates, its indistinguishable from brand spots.
That has raised the stakes for what candidates actually say during their ads.
“A [few] years ago, people were still figuring out in the political space how to make something that really aesthetically looked good, and now ad makers have caught on. You can hire the right people with the right camera, and the right lenses and get it well lit and do whatever you need to do to make something that actually aesthetically looks good,” Middleton told C&E. “But that’s not enough now. You see all these videos, they look nice, but the real thing is, can you tell a persuasive story?
“And the thing is, we’re seeing a lot of candidates [who] have really compelling stories now, so I don’t even know that just a candidate having a good story is enough. You need to be able, as an ad maker, to tell that story in a way that’s a little different and compelling … That’s why it’s important to break that narrative and come up with new ways of telling stories so that you have something that’s a little different that people want to share.”
As a former campaign communications director, it’s not surprising that Middleton is placing more emphasis on words and story structure than the visuals in a spot. In fact, it was her role as a comms director that got her connected with Mark Putnam, the firm’s namesake.
Back in 2014, Middleton was the comms director for singer-turned-congressional candidate Clay Aiken’s run for the House from North Carolina. Aiken hired Putnam to make his campaign ads after seeing spots for North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp’s successful Senate run in 2012, according to Middleton.
During Aiken’s campaign, Middleton formed a connection with the prominent ad maker, who subsequently hired her to work at his firm following Aiken’s race.
Now, Middleton has a front row seat for how many congressionals are positioning themselves in a competitive media environment. One aspect of a roll out that she’s on the fence about: launch videos. Some ad makers have characterized launch videos more generally as costly vanity projects that don’t deliver the return in fundraising that are sunk into the productions. Count Middleton as another media consultant who’s not sold on their effectiveness.
“Not every campaign needs a launch video,” said Middleton. “There’s a launch video coming out every day, or at least every week for campaigns … It’s more donor audience than the voters in a specific area.”
She encourages clients to make something original in order for it to resonate, but that doesn’t need to have high production value.
“It’s really important to have creative that’s very authentic,” she said.
In terms of organic content that’s performing well, she pointed to videos being released by Rep. Jeff Jackson (D-N.C.), who’s been doing direct-to-camera videos while he’s dressed casually at home.
“It’s him talking to the camera in a very honest way,” said Middleton. “And the way he’s talking is so authentic and honest and really very simple in a lot of ways. And it’s performing incredibly well because that’s what voters and political observers are hungry for — just a little honesty.
She added: “In an environment where some people think you need a lot of bells and whistles, a lot of times you don’t.”