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What They Say About Us: Democratic Storytelling Across Two Videos
February 25, 2016
Imagine you could go into it blind, with no context, preconceptions, or prejudices. What would you see? What would you think of it?
The video itself opens on a quick-fire montage of everyday moments over a funky drumbeat reminiscent of Peter Bjorn and John’s “Youngfolks.” Soon enough, we hear voice-over kick in as a pattern for the rest of the spot emerges where we see a cross-section of Americans talk about things they’re getting ready for, both ambitious and commonplace, over a visual medley of quotidian activities. With its flattened, naturalistic colors, brisk editing and sharp sound design, the video we’re watching feels at once familiar, polished and (maybe depending on how progressive your politics are) eminently relatable. The story being told is a time-honored one of normal Americans working hard to get ahead, but it’s still difficult to parse out precisely what we’re being sold. Is it a bank commercial for some type of personal or small business loan? Perhaps it’s for a comprehensive insurance policy? Or a low-interest credit card?
And then, at the around the minute-and-a-half mark, Hillary Clinton declares, “I’m getting ready to do something, too – I’m running for president.” The former Secretary of State then uses voice-over to share a topline vision for her campaign, and by extension, America, before returning briefly on-camera at the end. All in, Clinton only spends about ten to fifteen seconds on screen in what is almost a two-and-a-half minute campaign launch video.
Clinton’s decision to cede the spotlight is a smart strategic move for several reasons: one, it tells viewers who her campaign is about (them), while also showing the types of voters Clinton is going to have to mobilize to win the election in November. Two, by employing the aesthetics and conventions of established brands, Clinton positions herself as the candidate voters can feel secure investing their future in. And three, it takes the focus off one of the more polarizing, yet politically accomplished figures in recent memory, and puts it onto the more relatable constituents the former Senator hopes to serve.
By offering a more diverse, inclusive vision for America that’s ostensibly better for all, and not just some, Clinton hopes to show more moderate and undecided voters that she’s the sensible candidate looking out for their best interests, as opposed to advancing her own particular agenda, a criticism, which, fair or not, has dogged her throughout her career. It’s not me, it’s we, she’s saying, and it’s a sound strategy given that in today’s bitterly partisan political climate, a win will be achieved by bringing together undecided moderates instead of trying to win over deeply entrenched ideologues. Clinton’s positive, upbeat storytelling approach casts a wide net while also being perhaps a bit too considered and strategic for some potential voters.
But will it be enough?
As this election cycle has shown, voters on both sides of the ideological divide have shown their eagerness to embrace seemingly fringe candidates and make them into viable options. One such candidate, of course, is Bernie Sanders, a self-professed “Democratic Socialist” from a small Northeastern state who has been able to capture support by tapping into the concerns of a coalition of independent, and younger, better educated voters. While both Clinton and Sanders each offer a more inclusive, equitable vision for Americans, how they tell that story is often a reflection of the voters they inspire.
Take for example the video below. Created by non-campaign volunteers as an anti-dote to the divisiveness and xenophobia heard on the campaign trail, “Together” became a viral sensation and was quickly embraced and sanctioned by the Sanders campaign.
Whereas Clinton deftly holds her presence back in her campaign launch video, Sanders, in vocal form at least, is placed front and center from the start as we listen to one of his typically impassioned speeches over a conceptual, artistic execution that combines hundreds of photographs of hundreds of different types of people for a hypnotic effect. Many perceive Sanders as having less political baggage than his main Democratic rival, and can thus leverage his appeal as the feisty upstart to a group of disillusioned voters.
And it’s Sanders’ seeming ability to speak truth-to-power that has stirred the passions of a group of younger voters that not only feel their place in the world is diminishing, but are also feeling it more acutely given that historically they’ve been the kind of upwardly mobile voters Mrs. Clinton’s husband would have attracted back in the 90s. What these Millennial voters see as more measured, benignly optimistic stories of hard work leading to a better life may not only feel out-of-date, but also hopelessly disingenuous, too. To engage this demographic, it’s going to take a more radical narrative to make them feel that change is possible.
While both videos are commendable in their desire to show a more diverse America, ironically, it may be that Clinton’s seemingly safe, focus-grouped spot is the more courageous one. By showing actual living, breathing talking people (who were sourced from Hillary supporters and Democratic volunteers) we, as viewers, are forced to consider the gay couple, or the Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs as actual three-dimensional fellow citizens, as opposed to mere photographs. Still, as courageous as Clinton’s launch video may be, it’s hard to imagine it inspiring the kind of passionate social chatter that “Togetherness” received. Clinton’s less fiery, more deliberate approach may not burn as hot and bright, but it may be able to burn longer.
Whatever the outcome of July’s Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, both Clinton and Sanders have been able to create a narrative about the inequality – economic and otherwise – afflicting America. No matter which narrative approach resonates more with voters, it’s a story that needs to be told if the country hopes to live up to the ideals it has laid out for itself.