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Viral Videos Are Replacing Pricey Political Ads. They’re Cheaper, and They Work.

Viral Videos Are Replacing Pricey Political Ads. They’re Cheaper, and They Work.

These are not the stories that candidates usually turn to the camera and open up about in ads.One talked about her father’s violent temper and how she once watched him throw her mother through a plate glass door. Another recalled watching his brothers struggle to find steady work because of their criminal records. A third…


These are not the stories that candidates usually turn to the camera and open up about in ads.

One talked about her father’s violent temper and how she once watched him throw her mother through a plate glass door. Another recalled watching his brothers struggle to find steady work because of their criminal records. A third spoke of suffering a decade of sexual abuse as a child.

The wave of female, minority and outsider candidates that is breaking cultural barriers and toppling incumbents in the Democratic Party is also sweeping aside a longstanding norm in campaigns: That the public image of politicians — especially women — should be upbeat, uncontroversial and utterly conventional.

For many of these Democrats who were running against better-financed rivals, the breakthrough moment came after they got personal in relatively low-cost videos that went viral, reaching millions of people. Using documentary-style storytelling, which can last for several minutes, candidates have found a successful alternative to the traditional model of raising huge sums of money that get spent on expensive, 30-second television commercials.

The videos are chiefly intended as ads, but they also served a fund-raising purpose. For a fraction of the cost of those ad buys, these videos can be a force multiplier for candidates, helping to spread their stories in a way that is easily shareable and can inspire donations.

Jahana Hayes, a Connecticut educator and first-time candidatewho won a primary for Congress last month, produced a video for less than $20,000 that brought in $300,000 in donations after going viral. In it, she described the difficult circumstances of her upbringing — being raised by her grandmother while her mother battled addiction and then, at 17, getting pregnant.

In the housing project where she was raised, says Ms. Hayes, who was named National Teacher of the Year in 2016, “people were strong but they aren’t supposed to run for Congress.”

Republican candidates this year have been using their own personal, sometimes primal, approach — though with far different messages and audiences in mind. They have also largely stuck to the 30-second commercial format rather than the narrative videos, however.

“I believe in God, family and country. In that order,” said Brian Kemp,who won his party’s nomination for governorin Georgia after running a series of provocative ads that gained national notoriety. In one half-minute ad, called “Offends,” he also boasts of unapologetically standing for the national anthem, saying Merry Christmas and supporting “ironclad borders.” If that doesn’t interest you, he says, “Then I’m not your guy.”

Another of Mr. Kemp’s adsshowed him polishing and cocking a shotgun as a young man dating his daughter sits nervously to his side ticking off the list of campaign promises Mr. Kemp intends to fulfill. The firm that produced it, Something Else, in Northern Virginia, also madea viral adfor the Republican nominee for governor in Florida, Ron DeSantis, in which Mr. DeSantis’ children are shown paying homage to President Trump — one builds a wall out of play blocks, the other wears a onesie with the “Make America Great Again” slogan on it.

If the Republicans are appealing overtly to Trump supporters and conservatives, many Democrats are trying to telegraph a sense of shared struggle and life experience, while making the explicit assertion that a government cannot adequately represent the people it is supposed to serve unless its servants look like and live among the people.

Ayanna Pressley, whose primary victory last week over a 10-term Democratic congressman in the Boston area was the latest manifestation of the disruptive energy in the party’s progressive wing, helped raise her profile in Boston witha two-minute online video, called “The 1 Bus,”that showed her riding a city bus through her district. She narrates as the landscape outside changes from stately brick homes to blighted, vacant storefronts.

“I have stayed, on purpose, in close proximity to the hurt, acutely uncomfortable so that I’ll never grow complacent in tackling these inequities,” she says.

Ms. Pressley’s campaign, which also produced an earliervideoof her describing howshe sufferedchildhood sexual abuse and a campus sexual assault, had the bus video translated into Spanish, Chinese and Haitian Creole and largely spread its messages through social media. The only television ads the campaign paid for were on Spanish-language television.

“We knew we would be outraised and outspent, without a doubt,” said Sarah Groh, Ms. Pressley’s campaign manager. “So when it was a question of how do we deploy our resources we looked at where our voters were consuming their information. Social media is a big part of that. And I know we definitely got a bump with each of those videos.”

In one video for Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia, she describes growing up at times without health insurance and watching her parents work full-time jobs but still struggle to pay off student loans. “My story is not unique,” she says in the video, which wasposted to Facebook.

Andrew Gillum,the Democratic nominee for governor of Florida, narrated a series of videos that were shared tens of thousands of times online in whichhe talkedabout becoming governor “for anyone who’s ever been told that they don’t belong.” In one video he tells a story of his mother opening the front door to see a police officer there because one of his brothers — all of whom had criminal records — was in trouble again.

“I remember making the promise to myself that I wasn’t going to make my mom cry like that,” Mr. Gillum says. “She was going to cry because she was happy.”

Strategists say that messages of empowerment are especially potent today because many voters on the left are eager to see more women, minorities, young people and outsiders in government positions.

“People are broadening their definitions of what political leaders can look like,” said Teddy Goff, a co-founder of the agency Precision Strategies, a Democratic consulting firm, and President Barack Obama’s former digital director. “A political leader,” he added, “can be a 17-year-old from Parkland, Fla., or a 28-year-old who was a bartender until last year.”

The candidates who have upset the Democratic field this year come with a diversity of life experience that includes losing children to gun violence, undergoing gender reassignment surgery and escaping war-torn nations.

The use of viral videos by first-time candidates to challenge assumptions around who should run for office was used early on by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old New Yorker who upset a powerful incumbent congressman in a Democratic primary this summer. It was one of the first races in this election season to signal the disconnect many liberals feel from their leaders.

“Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, a former bartender, says in the opening of one of her most popular videos, “The Courage to Change,” which depicts her in settings that people from New York would find familiar: on a subway platform changing from flats into a pair of heels; eating dinner on the couch; shopping in a bodega. “If Congress starts to look like us, no one can stop us,” she says.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s video came out of a three-person firm called Means of Production in Detroit, whose young producers were galvanized by frustration at Democrats after the 2016 election and wanted to shift their know-how in advertising and public relations into creating “propaganda for the working class,” said Nick Hayes, 21, one of the firm’s founders. Mr. Hayes was producing ads for carmakers and foam cup sellers before he met Naomi Burton, 29, at their local Democratic Socialists of America meeting. They founded the company together.

M.J. Hegar, a Democratic congressional candidate in Texas, has garnered millions of views for her three-and-a-half minutevideo, “Doors,” in which she describes fighting wildfires in California, being awarded a Purple Heart, suing the Pentagon over its ban on women in ground combat and watching her father toss her mother through a glass door. The video, produced by Putnam Partners in Washington and set to a Rolling Stones-like soundtrack, feels like a short biographical film.

It was expensive to produce at $50,000, but ended up being a fantastic gamble. It helped her campaign raise $1 million as viewers were drawn to her heroism and a compelling depiction of someone “who bumped up against the system and changed it for the better,” said Cayce McCabe, a senior vice president at Putnam Partners.

People also took notice because Ms. Hegar did not look anything like the pearl-wearing politicians that play to part. In the opening shot of her and her family sitting down for a meal, the viewer sees a tattoo peeking out from under the sleeve on her right arm.

In hernewestvideo, Ms. Hegar is shown inside a tattoo parlor. As she presents her arm to the camera and reveals a design with flowers and tree branches she explains why it’s there in the first place: It covers up the scars from the combat injuries she sustained as a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan.

“A lot of Democrats, for years, have been supporting and voting for candidates who didn’t always say exactly what they believed, didn’t always show their authentic, true selves,” said Mr. Goff, the Democratic consultant.

“To look around, not just at Trump, but at who’s been winning elections,” he said, “a lot of us have started to think: why don’t we say what we mean?”

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