Television commercials use all the tools of fiction filmmaking, including script, visuals, editing, and performance, to distill a candidate’s major campaign themes into a few powerful images. Ads elicit emotional reactions, inspiring support for a candidate or raising doubts about his opponent. While commercials reflect the styles and techniques of the times in which they were made, the fundamental strategies and messages have tended to remain the same over the years.
Election videos get political candidates either voted into office or kicked to the curb. In the same vein, a video for your nonprofit’s mission influences the public to vote for—support—your nonprofit—the candidate.
No matter which side of the political fence you’re on, we think nonprofits can learn a lot from watching election videos. We viewed some of our favorite videos, from recent elections and earlier, and highlighted five takeaways that your organization can implement during its next shoot.
Shorter Is Sweeter
Before the internet, the majority of election videos were shot for TV and typically ranged from 30 to 60 seconds. Digital platforms have indeed opened the doors for longer ads, but the majority of election videos today stick within this timeframe.
When shooting your own nonprofit video you might consider going even shorter than that. The average attention span has fallen from 20 seconds in 2000 to around eight seconds today. For a frame of reference, goldfish have an attention span of nine seconds.
Not only do short videos accommodate short attention spans, they can be cheaper and just as effective as longer ones. Google Think’s research also shows TV ads are getting shorter across the board.
Television ad research has established that 15 second TV ads are roughly 75 percent as effective as 30 second spots. And they’re half the cost. So it’s no surprise that 15 second ads are so common on TV, and that 60 second spots are few and far between.
Communicating mass amounts of information in 30 seconds or less can be difficult, but the reward is an engaged audience that pays attention. Instead of releasing one 90 second video, try releasing three 30 second videos—short, sweet, and to the point.
Example: Barack Obama, “Fundamentals” (2008)
Obama’s election video here delivers an incredible amount of dense information directly and quickly. In 30 seconds it talks about Lehman Brothers, job losses, housing markets, the economic collapse—and then shifts the focus to John McCain.
Transparency Equals Trust
When the public vote for candidates, they want to know details about the people they’re voting for. Certain election videos called “biographical ads” are professionally engineered to give the public the behind-the-scenes look they crave.
As a nonprofit, much like a political candidate, your reputation is everything. In today’s world transparency equals trust, and if you want to strengthen your reputation you should increase your transparency.
A strong and stable reputation based on what you do best plays a logical role in building stronger relationships with other organizations, sponsors, politicos, and supporters.
A focus on transparency should be a top priority as you shoot your nonprofit videos. When you give the public an inside look at who you are, your mission, and the scope of your impact, you’re more likely to win over supporters. Videos that depict your office culture, your work on the ground, or tenacity in the face of adversity are just a few examples of how you can show viewers who you are.
Example: Bill Clinton, “Journey” (1992)
Clinton took footage from a longer, biographical film about his life and repurposed it into an election video that helped him win the support of America. The final cut was so powerful because it added a layer of transparency to the kind of person Clinton was. An emphasis on his small town roots, strong work ethic, wisdom, and humanity cements this as the most compelling biographical ad ever made.
Optimize for Mobile Engagement
Smartphone and tablet usage for video has more than doubled since 2013. There’s no question that it plays a major role for the 2016 election cycle.
Mobile is going to be the big thing in 2016. It is what any sophisticated campaign will be trying to figure out and then maximize in 2016.
The reason candidates want to leverage mobile engagement is because it spreads their message like wildfire to their supporters. Supporters, in turn, spread it to outside audiences who might not ever see the video otherwise. They do this in a couple of ways:
- Voters will leverage mobile devices to organize the public on behalf of candidates and as a tool to persuade other voters
- Both parties will share video footage with Twitter followers, and people on the ground will use these apps to capture key moments of the campaign trail—which can be used positively or negatively to frame a candidate
Just like politicians, nonprofits should take advantage of video’s potential for mobile engagement. If your nonprofit video strategy doesn’t incorporate mobile, you need to start building towards it now. Take a look at the stats:
- 147 million Americans watch video on the internet
- 92 percent of mobile video consumers share video content with others
- 75 percent of online video viewers have interacted with an online video ad this month
- 90 percent of people say that watching video helps them when it’s time to make an important decision
Try starting small at first. Put your video on Twitter and see how your immediate donor base reacts. If the response is positive, start pushing it to different channels on social media and eventually YouTube. If it fails, go back to the drawing board and reiterate a fresh video based on your supporters’ feedback.
Example: Bernie Sanders, “America” (2015)
Sanders’ election video didn’t win him the presidential nomination, but it hit 2,843,202 views on YouTube in January alone. That got it ranked as one of the top 10 most watched YouTube ads in January. To date, it’s racked up 3,890,920 total views. Let’s examine the engagement given the aforementioned statistics:
- According to YouTube’s statistics, more than half of a video’s YouTube views come from mobile devices
- If you take the total number of views on “America” and halve it, you can safely assume that 1,945,460 views came from mobile
- If 92 percent of mobile video consumers do, in fact, share video content with others, that means 1,789,823 mobile viewers shared “America”
Treat Your Video as Art
Election videos and political ads, for the most part, are considered formulaic and boring. It’s not that the candidates themselves are boring, but rather their teams don’t bring a lot of creativity into the process.
What we have now is formulaic advertising based on rigidly tested and word-smithed concepts that hammer away at one or two points the consultants have decided in their Machiavellian wisdom will have the most impact. Inevitably, each candidate’s advertising ends up being a carbon copy of their competition’s.
However, there are candidates who realize that people don’t enjoy ads like this. In some cases, politicians and their teams treat their election video more like a movie and less like an advertisement.
This comes in the form of deft scriptwriting, beautiful cinematography, and developed characters. Regardless, the important part is to take full advantage of the emotion video brings to the table.
Film and video are inherently emotional mediums, and as such they function best when they are communicating at an emotional level. Specifically, they allow an audience to connect with characters and to experience those characters’ feelings.
If your nonprofit wants to build an emotional connection to your audience, treat your next video like the piece of artwork it is. This is doubly important given how video can mobilize your supporters.
Video content provides incredible opportunities for charities to promote their cause and win new supporters and funds, especially a younger audience.
Write a compelling script, budget for a high end videographer, shoot at beautiful and relevant locations, or use some editing magic in post-production. Break the mold and give your supporters a fresh, creative, and artistic video that exemplifies who you are as an organization.
Example: Ronald Reagan, “Prouder, Stronger, Better (Morning in America)” (1984)
Reagan released this video in 1984 as part of an extended “Morning in America” series. That was 32 years ago, but the way modern politicians still reference it would make you think it came out last week.
Cruz, Rubio, and Clinton all individually reference this ad campaign in the 2016 election race. What did Reagan’s team do that made it stick so well? They had a well written script, shot it like a movie trailer, and made the message carry across multiple installments.
Leverage Online Distribution
Even in today’s digital world, election videos are still made for TV spots. However, coveted air space costs candidates millions of dollars.
Hillary Clinton continues to outpace Donald Trump in spending on television ads. So far in the  general election, Clinton and her backers have doled out $189 million, compared with $50 million by Trump and his supporters.
According to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, local television stations typically charge anywhere from $200 to $1,500 for a 30 second commercial. National commercial spots, usually produced by an agency, average $342,000 for a 30 second spot.
Nonprofits might not have the same spending power that politicians do, but they can still take a page from the use of free channels, like YouTube. Generally, posting videos on the internet is free. Put the money your nonprofit saves on TV air time towards boosting your video across the board.
Example: Barack Obama, “Yes We Can” (2008)
This election video was only released on the web, but it racked up 26 million views in a few days. That’s just as, if not more, effective than a TV ad. No doubt, it cost substantially less for Obama’s campaign to promote it.
The numbers alone prove that your nonprofit should be heavily engaged in creating video content. As we learned from these election videos, a well-crafted video can drum up more support for your cause and better engage your community.
Keep your message short, be transparent with your audience, optimize for mobile engagement, dare to break the mold, and leverage online distribution. If you want to do more research, we recommend watching election videos from years past—you never know what great idea it might inspire.