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Means of Production subverts advertising to sell Americans on socialism

Inside the creative strategy behind the viral ads of congressional candidates Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Kaniela Ing.

Means of Production subverts advertising to sell Americans on socialism

This week, a new young Democratic candidate for Congress grabbed national headlines with an ad that immediately got people’s attention, spread like wildfire across social media, and sparked the kind of coverage any candidate–or brand, for that matter–could only dream of. Kaniela Ing is a House candidate running in Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, and his ad, “A New Possible,” is a stylish stump speech outlining the 29-year-old’s humble roots, his commitment to fighting for healthcare, affordable housing, and education for working people, and his aggressive opposition to corporate campaign funding.

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If this story arc of a young, underdog candidate passionately embracing the ideals of democratic socialism sounds familiar, then you remember the phenomenal recent success of an ad by 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won the Democratic nomination for New York’s 14th Congressional District in June over 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley.

The ads, which were created with Detroit-based production company Means of Production, share more than viral success. While the ads for both Ing and Ocasio-Cortez are unique to the life and location of each candidate, there is also a consistency of tone and creative construct that binds them. Both are about two minutes long. Both begin by outlining the candidate’s family and work background. And both, after a minute, shift from listing off the challenges facing working people to a building crescendo of what each candidate aims to do about it.

For Means of Production cofounders Naomi Burton and Nick Hayes, this is a conscious decision to visually and thematically use these two individual campaigns–as well as a third spot for Ayanna Pressley’s run for Massachusetts’ 7th District, which is coming in mid-August–to illustrate the challenges that working people everywhere have in common, in an advertising language we all understand.

“What we’re trying to do is create a visually cohesive, comprehensive propaganda front on behalf of three incredible socialist candidates for Congress,” says Hayes. “We want to have all of their videos exist within the same universe. The people of New York, the people of Hawaii, and the people of Boston all share a struggle. It’s a common struggle of capitalist exploitation and social services being cut, of profit being put before people, and we want to make that part of the same message.”

It’s like how a Nike campaign might feature individual ads with pro athletes from different sports, all touting the same shoe. Except, y’know, for socialism.

Burton and Hayes met at their first Democratic Socialists of America meeting in Detroit back in late 2016. Both were working in corporate communications, Burton in PR with firms like FleishmanHillard, and Hayes as a freelance commercial producer creating ads for primarily the Big Three auto brands. Not long after meeting, the pair started Means of Production in January 2017.

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“Both of those spaces are pretty hollow, and only the biggest corporations can afford high-end communications and video,” says Burton. “As we were becoming more immersed in the world of socialism, we wanted to take the resources and knowledge that we got from our private-sector work and bring them to the left.”

The DSA Detroit chapter that Burton and Hayes joined did not have any organizational structure that could easily incorporate their skills, like a formal communications department, so they created Means to maximize how they could advance the cause of democratic socialism. “Everyone should be doing traditional volunteer work, but if you’re someone who knows digital strategy or production, you should be able to utilize those skills for socialism,” says Hayes. “So we want to create a place where creative professionals can do that, be compensated fairly, and do work that they align with ideologically.”

Both the Ocasio-Cortez and Ing ads succeed because they pair emotional visuals with a compelling narrative. Burton and Hayes say the foundation of each spot is each candidate’s ability to tell their own story. “We’re relatively picky about who we work with, and we’ve been drawn to these candidates because they really understand their own stories, they bring us in emotionally before we even start shooting,” says Burton. “We’re there to help amplify it.”

Adds Hayes: “We’re borrowing a lot from the best aspects of the standard commercial production process. Trying to create a focused script, then building visuals around it to drive those points home.”

The building of an emotional crescendo in each spot feels very much like the cadence of an Obama-era political speech. Hayes says this has become a key part of how young people think political messages should work, but he’s careful to draw a line of distinction, criticizing the former president for focusing more on words than actions. “After people felt betrayed by Obama’s use of hope and change, you can’t use that again. It’s gone,” says Hayes. “You have to find another way, a way to say directly, we know you’ve been screwed, we know you’ve been wronged, let’s try to find some ways to improve your life–and doing it in a language they understand.”

The spots also stylishly juxtapose the most common images of places like New York and Hawaii–gleaming skyscrapers, a vacation paradise–with a street-level view of the realities of daily life. “Our goal is also not to overdramatize,” says Burton. “We were really seeing those scenes. We saw encampments of homeless native Hawaiians next to enormous glass high-rise condos that sell for millions. It’s about showing these contrasts that we don’t often see, and we don’t see enough.”

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Right now, Means of Production is obviously focused on the midterm primaries, but outside the trilogy of Ocasio-Cortez, Ing, and Pressley, they’re consulting with other campaigns and causes around the U.S., including various state office and governor races. Burton says the overall goal is to build an infrastructure able to work on many projects simultaneously, not only on video content, but overall digital messaging and social strategy.

“We’re very much building this plane while we’re flying it,” says Burton. “One thing we’ve seen through working with the Democratic Socialists is that socialists are smart, creative, and know how to get a message across the internet without spending $1 million on a 30-second TV ad that no one’s going to watch.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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