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Political Ads on TV: Six Trends From the 2018 Midterm Election Cycle

November 6th, 2018   ||    by Oriana Schwindt

The 2018 midterm elections are among the more contentious in recent memory, full of close races that led to a massive number of political ads. Campaigns were forecast to spend a total $9 billion, according to MediaPost.

Before everyone turns their attention to 2020, it’s worth analyzing some of the trends in these political ads:


The groundswell of dark horse candidates have had political ad makers turning to tactics outside of name recognition. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley in the primary race for his House seat, made big waves with a “DIY” ad that highlighted her working-class roots, according to The Intercept.

The filmmakers behind Ocasio-Cortez’s viral ad made another for Kaniela Ing, who ran for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, that similarly played on sincerity, reports CNN. In the Democratic primary for New York’s governorship, Cynthia Nixon came out with a strong, sincere ad, posted on YouTube. Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, Ing and Nixon didn’t win, but the response to these ads should perk up the ears of political ad makers.


Perhaps realizing how much of the electorate is under the age of 40, Democratic candidates, in particular, turned to humor in their ads. Minnesota Democratic challenger Dean Phillips’s campaign released an ad that featured a petulant Bigfoot voicing its jealousy over the ability of Phillips’s opponent, Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN) to hide in plain sight, summarized Ad Age.


An ad featuring six adults giving their negative opinions on Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) went viral thanks to its particular twist: The six people were actually Gosar’s siblings, and they were all endorsing his opponent, Democrat David Brill. The ad was described as “brutal” by the Huffington Post.


On TV, political ads clearly meant to inspire fear were used mainly (though not exclusively) by Republican candidates. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), in particular, used this tactic against his opponent, Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar. Hunter, in a series of ads, implied Campa-Najjar was a terrorist operative and a security risk. The Washington Post called one of the ads “one of the most vile political ads this year.”

Celebrity Endorsements

Celebrities haven’t shied away in the past from making on-camera political endorsements, but it was still interesting to see Academy Award-nominated director Richard Linklater lend his talents to a series of anti-Ted Cruz (R-TX) ads, according to Rolling Stone.

Digital Expansion

Again, catering perhaps to the younger electorate, many of the campaigns enhanced the reach of their TV ads by posting them on digital platforms as well. After all, uploading an ad to YouTube is free and can even make you money, drumming up donations and bringing in revenue via ads placed by YouTube on your ad.

For candidates running in tough locales, local advertising is great to get your message to the people who can actually vote for you. But releasing your ad online can also bring in a flood of donations, as it did for Beto O’Rourke, Ted Cruz’s Democratic challenger for one of Texas’ Senate seats. O’Rourke raised a record-shattering $38 million in just three months, according to The Intercept, thanks to an aggressive digital campaign that included the release of TV ads online.

The strategies candidates used in this midterm election season will likely set the precedent for election cycles going forward, so ad makers of 2020 should watch and learn from the trends that paid off.

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