Air Wars

The Michael Bay-ification of the Modern Political Ad

The new state of the art is an apocalyptic action movie—with the candidate as hero.
Photographer: Francois Durand/WireImage

In less than two weeks, Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi will hit theaters. The film hasn’t screened for critics yet, but while the book the film is based off is steadfastly unpolitical, the implication of Bay—one of the most outspoken Republicans in Hollywood—making a movie with the word “Benghazi” in the title hasn’t been lost on anyone. It’s possible that the director of the four Transformers films and Pearl Harbor has just made a feature-length political ad.

But if that’s what he has done, the political world has passed him by, because now your average political ad resembles, more than anything else, a Michael Bay movie.

Check out this new ad from Ted Cruz, in which the Texas senator's ad makers produce and score a bunch of lawyers and journalists dressed up in suits sprinting across a border as if it’s the most dramatic event since Spielberg showed those soldiers storming Omaha Beach.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen journalists so nicely dressed, but other than that, Cruz’s message is clear: The stakes are high, and therefore the drama is high. The thundering orchestra, the slo-mo and camera angles, the quick-cutting … it has the cadence and tenor of a war movie. This is the tone of the new political ad. They’re not here to introduce you to the candidate or to inspire you. They’re meant to get your blood flowing, your heart pumping, your hand gripping the edge of your seat—before, hopefully, pulling the lever for the candidates whose heroism in the face of grave dangers to the Republic is being extolled. 

Here’s Donald Trump’s much-ballyhooed first ad. 

There’s no smiling “vote for me! I’m just like you!” appearance from Trump in that ad as you might have seen in ads of the past. Instead, it’s all dark imagery, scary, scary, and even features a warship firing missiles in a fiery explosion. Boom! Boom! They are meant to evoke strength and power, which, not coincidentally, is exactly what war movies are supposed to do.

The goal of many political advertisements in the days of yore was to help you get to know a candidate. Here’s Bill Clinton’s famous “Town Called Hope” ad.

That’s a Frank Capra ad, but now we exist in a Michael Bay world. Nobody cares where a candidate is from in these ads. Nobody cares how they will make you feel. Now they just want to sell themselves as heros: To go kick the ass of whatever boogeymen are out there, whether they’re ISIS, Mexicans or journalists. 

Political ads have been trending in this direction for a while—but the Bay-ification of ads this cycle has been an evolutionary leap forward. “The saccharine bio spot is a thing of the past right now,” GOP media strategist Brad Todd told the Washington Post . The goal now is not personality. It is strength.

Possibly the strangest fact about this new crop of ads is its pioneer: Tim Pawlenty, former Minnesota governor and notorious milquetoast. Four years ago, Pawlenty was widely mocked for his “Courage to Stand” ad, which was like a Michael Bay movie in which Pawlenty was your brawny, muscular, knife-between-his-teeth star. 

The ad was ahead of its time—never a good circumstance for a politician. And Pawlenty added sweeteners at the end there, with footage of the U.S. hockey team and chants of “USA! USA!” Today’s candidates have taken that Hollywood war film vision and weaponized it against The Other. We are probably only a couple of months away from a found-footage horror film-style ad. Paranormal Activity: Border Crossing.

All of which makes the notion of inspiring people with an ad seem dangerously soft. Here’s one of President Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign advertisements, from eight years ago:

At this point, that ad feels about as dated as this one:

Fear is the word. Power is the word. Strength is the word. Michael Bay … you’re no Ted Cruz.

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