Between now and the general election in November, the American public will endure countless hours of political ads on television and the internet. There’s no way to sugarcoat this: It’s going to suck. And voters should be made aware of the tricks and tropes that political ads use to convey their frequently dubious messages. Video essayist Jack Nugent has devoted an episode of his Now You See It webseries to dissecting campaign ads.
As Nugent points out, today’s slickly produced political commercials employ cinematic techniques that date back at least a century. One such technique is montage, which allows editors to juxtapose shots in such a way that images appear related to one another through proximity, whether or not there’s any connection between them. In the video, Alfred Hitchcock, a master of montage, is shown demonstrating the technique to an interviewer. A brief film sequence seemingly depicts Hitchcock smiling benignly at a baby. But swap the shot of the baby with a shot of a woman in a bikini, and suddenly Hitch is a dirty old man. That’s the power of the montage. “With the right images in the right order,” Nugent says, “you can create any response you want.”
Political ads from both sides of the aisle use a variety of cinematic techniques in their quest to promote certain candidates and smear others. Lighting, image quality, and even aspect ratio are crucial. In a Ted Cruz ad, for instance, Marco Rubio is deemed sympathetic to terrorists and therefore a threat to the nation’s security. This is partially accomplished by doctoring footage of Rubio to look like something out of a found-footage horror film. A Hillary Clinton ad, meanwhile, shrinks images of her opponents down so that they don’t fill up the entire screen, subtly negating them. To illustrate his point, Nugent dissects a Vietnam-era ad for Richard Nixon alongside scenes from both Citizen Kane and Psycho and even some beer commercials. Nugent concludes, “The point is the assembling of images is extremely powerful. Everybody does it, and it’s not just limited to movies. This form of cinematic brainwashing happens all the time.” All the more reason to stay vigilant for the next five months.