Political Ads

What It Takes to ‘Approve This Message’

BY Tanner Edwards

February 18, 2019

Community Outreach Public Affairs

Chicago is about a week away from a hugely consequential municipal election.

For avid political observers (guilty), the final chess moves in the campaign’s homestretch are always a thrill. But for many, the lead-up to Election Day is defined by a cacophony of political ads – which can test the patience of even the most civically engaged.

While we’re inundated, we should spend at least one commercial break’s time analyzing the oft-maligned political ad. Though many are forgettable, the best political ads can tell compelling stories about a candidate, launch a campaign, and ultimately lead to real policy change. And whether you are a politico or not, I think they have much to teach us about effective communication on the airwaves and beyond.

So – to make the hundreds of political ads you will see in Chicagoland in the coming days more bearable, let’s check out some of the recent classics in the genre and the lessons they hold for messaging on and off the campaign trail.

A quick disclaimer: although there is plenty of interesting ad material to consider among active Chicago-area campaigns, this close to the election I’m going to refrain from analyzing those ads in this post. What follows are some of the best of the rest from around the country:

Carl Sciortino for Congress: “Father’s Son”

Dedicated readers of the Grisko Insights blog might remember that I cut my teeth in politics as a field organizer on a campaign for Congress in Massachusetts. In addition to getting an education on the art of canvassing with that 2013 campaign, I also had the good fortune of watching our candidate’s stellar TV ad go viral in the closing weeks of his run for Congress. Though it was ultimately not enough to lead him to victory, then State-Rep. Carl Sciortino’s ad is indeed a “masterpiece”:

Carl, an openly gay legislator and progressive leader in the Massachusetts State House, cleverly “comes out” to his Tea Party dad in the ad – as a “Massachusetts liberal.” At a time of growing political polarization, the spot struck a chord with its charming portrait of how to fiercely disagree with your loved ones without being disagreeable.

Ron DeSantis for Governor: “Casey”

Though now-Governor Ron DeSantis’ political beliefs aren’t exactly my cup of tea, there’s no doubt that this ad from the 2018 Republican Primary for Florida Governor was, you might say …“tremendous”:

Congressman DeSantis creatively shows his fealty to Trumpism in the way he’s raising his kids – reading to them from The Art of the Deal and decking them out in classic Trump garb.

Particularly in purple Florida, the ad is brilliant. It shows DeSantis as 100% behind the President while sneakily softening abrasive aspects of his agenda in a way that may well have made DeSantis a more palatable choice in the general election, effectively speaking to multiple audiences in the spot.

Amy McGrath for Congress: “Told Me” 

For my money, this spot from Amy McGrath was the best ad of the 2018 cycle, highlighting McGrath’s dogged pursuit of service as a Marine fighter pilot and her “new mission” to reform Congress.

The ad spotlights a woman meeting the moment – having overcome doubts from her congressman about her ability to serve in the military, she is prepared to again challenge the powers that be, step up and serve.

McGrath ultimately lost the race by a few points, but there’s no doubt that she captured the spirit of a cycle that saw the most women ever elected to Congress along the way.

John Hickenlooper for Governor: “Shower”

If you still find political ads irredeemable after watching a few shining examples in this post, then I have a feeling you might like this 2010 spot from John Hickenlooper:

Decked out in everything from business suits to cowboy getups, Hickenlooper literally cleans off the mud from attack ads and promises to run a campaign that doesn’t go negative. It’s gimmicky but great, hitting on a bigger message of a “clean campaign” and good government that would help the two-term Governor Hickenlooper craft an enduring image as a quirky, earnest politician – with good hygiene to boot.

You don’t need to be running for Mayor of Chicago to learn a thing or two from these master classes in political advertising. For communicators of all kinds, the ads show us the importance of:

  • Clear, authentic identity – to make you more memorable, three-dimensional, and interesting to engage with – I know I for one would want to check out a fighter jet with Amy McGrath.
  • Being flat-out bold – whether involving a candidate, cause, or product, your initiative must cut through an ever-evolving clutter – and every once in a while take an inspired leap to really win the day.
  • Multi-layered messaging – good ads like these deliver so much more than a few policy points. In the visual stories they tell, they illustrate character, reveal values, and at best inspire deep loyalty to the campaign.
  • Knowing your moment and weaving your story into it – my old boss’ ad “coming out” as a Massachusetts liberal would never have worked without the social issue debates and political polarization that defined 2013. The candidates in these ads expertly understood their context and authentically demonstrated the role that they could play in it, working with the zeitgeist in a way that many of us aspire to.

With this page from my viewer’s guide in mind, may the ads you see over the next few days be more interesting, illuminating, and edifying for you.

Or, at the very least, just a little less annoying.


BY Tanner Edwards

February 18, 2019

Community Outreach Public Affairs