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Jim Bognet’s first congressional campaign ad in Pennsylvania was ready to go. Then the coronavirus hit, state officials delayed the primary, and the Republican felt the spot was out of touch.
Shooting another professional one would require roughly a dozen people at least. So Bognet took his cell phone to his family’s vacant construction business and filmed an ad criticizing China’s role in the virus and praising President Donald Trump.
“I wanted to speak that from the heart and let the voters know that’s what I felt,” he said in an interview.“I wasn’t worried about how pretty it looked.”
The spread of the coronavirus and the need for social distancing is forcing candidates to change the way they approach campaign advertising, a vital aspect of most political campaigns. Candidates filmed before the outbreak might have enough footage to run ads, said Ian Russell, a Democratic consultant with Beacon Media. But the new reality and altered viewer sensitivities could make previously shot human interactions obsolete and off-putting.
“You don’t want to turn a candidate into a super-spreader by putting them in shot after shot standing with different groups of people,” he said.
Filming a professional campaign ad can require the candidate; a camera man; a producer; a director of photography; people handling lighting, sound, and hair and makeup; various assistants; media strategists; and campaign staffers — plus the potential for dozens or even hundreds of volunteers.
Running that kind of operation is impossible amid the virus outbreak. But with people stuck at home, TV viewership up, and in-person campaigning sidelined, it’s more important than ever for candidates in competitive primaries or battleground races to be on TV, said Republican media consultant Erik Potholm.
Ads could simply stitch together photos and stock footage with a voice-over, but it’s usually not as effective, Potholm said.
“When a candidate delivers a message to camera, it’s much more believable, it’s much more credible, and therefore much more authentic,” he said. “It’s always important, but with this environment, it’s even more important.”
To get on air without violating restrictions, campaigns are getting creative. In Maine, Senate candidate Sara Gideon’s (D) videographer dropped off a ring light and camera at her house. While Gideon spoke with voters on her laptop, her 15-year-old son manned the camera, producing shots used in several ads.
In another recent ad, a campaign staffer wearing a mask and gloves filmed Senate candidate Amy McGrath (D) from six feet away as she talked about helping her fellow Kentuckians. In the background, her husband played with their young children.
Media consultant Mark Putnam said rather than rely on previously shot footage and voice-overs, it was important to capture that McGrath’s family was in the same spot as others in the state.
“It purposely has a homemade feel to it, because that’s what it is,” he said. “It fit the moment, and it allowed Amy to talk directly to people about what she was going through.”
Directing on FaceTime
Some candidates are still relying on professional crews to help film their ads, but everything from how many people are at the shoot to how long it takes has changed, said Rob Grossman, who produces ads with SOS Commercial Productions for political consulting firms.
Reducing staff is only part of the plan Grossman has come up with to allow filming to occur while obeying social distancing rules: Locations must accommodate seven people working for several hours while never coming close to each other; locations must be completely cleaned ahead of time; hiring local crews when in the past he would have flown there; no more paper notes passed around the set; and only one person touches a pieces of equipment at a time.
In Wisconsin’s 7th District, Tom Tiffany (R) wanted to communicate with voters before the May 12 special election. A team of two from a local film crew helped shoot the ad in his home, according to a spokesman. Tiffany’s family, who appeared in the ad, helped out with adjusting equipment.
“I’d prefer to shake your hand and ask for your vote,” Tiffany says in the ad. “But that will have to wait.”
In Iowa, Senate contender Mike Franken (D) filmed while the virus was beginning to spread, but before most stay-at-home orders were in place. In the ad, he bumps elbows with one voter and stands six feet away to speak with another.
RedPrint Strategy’s Casey Phillips, a Tiffany consultant, and Beacon Media’s Philip de Vellis, a Franken consultant, both directed their respective ads via FaceTime from D.C.
While the complication is far greater, Grossman said he sees value in filming fresh ads as the pandemic continues to keep Americans home.
“You’re able to put a camera up and craft a message in a very timely way that can communicate a little more directly because it’s a human-to-human kind of thing,” he said. “That to me is a very obvious advantage.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org