When a political ad for Randy Bryce, the Wisconsin ironworker challenging Paul Ryan’s congressional seat, hit the internet last month, it quickly went viral. Esquire called it “one hell of a political ad.” A Twitter user suggested that Bryce was “genetically engineered from Bruce Springsteen songs.” Bryce himself was elated when GQ wrote it up, tweeting from his own account — @IronStache, naturally — that his mother told him he’d never reach such heights.
The ad is a compelling mix of verité documentary filmmaking and political savvy. It was produced by Acres New York, which last year made a four-minute ad for Bernie Sanders featuring a testimonial from the daughter of Eric Garner. (In 2015, Acres also produced an ad for the Senate run of John Fetterman, the major of Braddock, PA, who had pulled his town away from the brink of disaster and into the world of Levi’s ads).
Longreads reached out to Acres founder Matt McLaughlin and director Paul Hairston to learn more about their approach to storytelling. McLaughlin is business partners with Bill Hyers, a political strategist who ran Bill de Blasio’s 2013 campaign. The pair recently launched WIN, which develops political strategy around video campaigns, and whose list of clients includes Bryce, Fetterman, Sanders, Bill De Blasio, and Martin O’Malley. The Bryce ad is WIN’s inaugural work.
A lot of people who watched the Randy Bryce spot said it felt like they weren’t watching a political ad. Some were even surprised by the announcement of his candidacy at the end.
Matt McLaughlin: Traditionally, political ads in my opinion are terrible. They don’t resonate or connect with anyone. Give people a real story, something that is interesting and valuable, especially to people in Wisconsin. Allow them to fall in and connect with the story. Our goal was to grab the attention of the country — reporters, celebrities, everyone —and also to get a message out there. The tie-in for us is healthcare, to connect Trump, Paul Ryan, Randy’s mother and her struggles to something much bigger.
Paul Hairston: From a filmmaking standpoint, I have to agree with Matt. Watching the last two presidential campaigns, even local and municipal campaigns, the ads are creatively not ideal. A lot of them are devoid of any emotionality.
Music plays an important part in all of your ads, including Randy’s.
PH: I think music is paramount. I don’t think it’s meant to manipulate, or to guide your eyes or ears in the wrong direction. It’s supposed to open and engage your attention. It helps the viewer receive Randy’s mother for who she is: A sick woman who will be in danger under the proposed healthcare plan. I actually spent quite a few days scouting music before we even shot it. If you use some horrid drumbeat or a campy song, you’re going to lose any seriousness of your intention. The music is a way of letting viewers know our message is sincere, our candidate is sincere, and the story is real.
MM: The decision Paul made to use the music he chose, and also the intimacy that he was able to capture between Randy and the audience, was what made that structure work. The music is really helpful. It helps people fall into the ad.
How difficult was it to capture that intimacy? Was the video scripted?
MM: This spot is not scripted whatsoever. Paul is an amazing interviewer. We had certain ideas that we went into it with, but those are all Randy’s words.
PH: Coming from a background of documentary filmmaking, I’m used to the the process of becoming familiar with people. Randy is a conversational person. I’ve done documentaries with real people before, and I really try to get to someone’s core. With Randy, he’s delighted to express what he feels. He definitely made it incredibly easy for us.
MM: Another thing that we, and I know a lot of people, are tired of seeing in political spots is a scripted way of communicating with people. We have a really strong belief in letting people say what comes naturally, what they truly believe in. This is what people attach themselves to when they like a candidate.
Maybe that’s what makes your approach stick out so much. Political ads aren’t typically vehicles for storytelling.
PH: What we did, and what I give Matt a lot of credit for, is to bring the earnestness of genuine modern doc-making into the political world.
MM: There’s this movement in filmmaking, advertising, and hopefully now political advertising of using film techniques that convey more genuine, honest feelings. If you watch a film like Moonlight, it has a feeling that’s unique to the story that’s being told. We’re sensitive to the people that we’re crafting our ads for— communicating with them as opposed to at them.
One of the most exciting things about this ad blowing up the way it did is that I’ve always wanted to change the way that people think about political advertising. Hopefully we can give other folks validation that the honest approach works.
What kind of planning went into making the ad?
MM: Making a political ad is usually super fast-paced. One of the reasons this type of filmmaking hasn’t really used for political ads is because the stakes are are higher, the timelines are shorter, and the budget is much smaller.
You have to work really fast to condense the type of filmmaking Paul does with limited time and resources. Our process is much different than you would see in traditional advertising. It’s not like I’m sitting over his shoulder and micromanaging the shots, which is the case in most situations. We came up with a structure and a storyline, a basic shared vision, but a lot of things are up in the air because it’s all up to circumstance. Maybe Randy’s mom isn’t feeling well that day and we’re shit out of luck and just have to roll with it.
Paul and I talk a lot about where the story arc is and what the progression of story should be. There’s a reason story arcs exist and why archetypes exist. Randy is an archetype and so is Paul Ryan. We wanted to end up with a place of hope and excitement that centers around Randy. I could see other ads ending with, “this is why Paul Ryan is bad,” but we’ve always been advocates of positivity. Although this isn’t the average political spot, it’s not an indie film. People want a happy ending.
The Randy Bryce ad and the Erica Garner ad for Bernie Sanders are both over two minutes long: Erica Garner doesn’t even mention her father until a full minute into the video, and Bernie doesn’t appear until a minute and a half after that. How do you make this storytelling style work for the length of a traditional media ad buy?
MM: There’s this idea that 30-second or 60-second ads have higher value. The advertising community holds up these standards, and these kinds of ads are the easiest things to do. What’s hard to do is hold people’s attention when you have no guaranteed ad buy. Neither of these spots had ad buys behind them. They’re crafted to give people value.
The media-buying industry has a massive grip on advertising infrastructure. When we started WIN, I saw traditional advertising as a top down approach and I wanted to do something from the bottom up. We wanted to craft real stories, put them out in an honest way, and listen to what people have to say about them. On TV, I’m not going to get feedback. The internet allows us to weave communication into the process; it allows me to change the structure, change the creative, and really listen to folks. Then when we make more strategic buys we have better insight about how to craft that message and how we’re pushing that stuff out there. People don’t react well to shitty ads, or even ads in general.
PH: I think audiences are becoming smarter. It’s a testament to where we are right now in the political world that people are willing to watch a four-minute spot, engage with it, and, spread it around. When it comes to politics right now, people are incredibly hopeful and aspirational.
This interview has been condensed and edited.