top of page

Watching 2020 political ads. A review.

Styles in political advertising change slowly. Watch most current negative ads, and you’ll likely see the same decades-old black-and-white negative photos, dire music, and tearsheet headlines. “Joe Tunney will take your Social Security away.” “Melissa Matters wants the government to decide what’s best for your family.”

The limits of the format partly dictates this. Thirty-second TV ads more easily convey emotion than understanding. This is why the last decade’s most famous ad was all emotion. This was Bernie Sanders’ 2016 “America” ad that featured no words except Simon & Garfunkel’s lyrics over a montage of Americana and mostly all-white (it should be said) crowds from Sanders campaign stops.

Occasionally a truly fresh ad will break through like Katie Hill’s 2018 rock climbing spot. Unfortunately, nothing in this year’s crop of California ads approaches this, but here are some of noteworthy continuing trends and ads from around the state.


This partly reflects the low popularity of both major parties. It also reflects where most undecided votes are: registered as independents or no party preference. So even though most viewers can infer a candidate’s political leanings from an ad, campaigns see no reason to hang a lantern on it.

A good example is this digital ad from Los Angeles-area Assemblyman Mike Gipson. Even though the moderate Democrat won two-thirds of the primary vote and is facing a fellow Democrat, Gipson took no chances and never mentions his Democratic affiliation:

This trend has also thoroughly migrated to most online and print materials. But a backlash may be bubbling. More and more voters have told me this makes a candidate look deceptive or too coy by half. So keep an eye out for a possible “trust and candor” counter-trend, not unlike during the post-Watergate period.


As voters under 25 continue to increase their turnout, many candidates try courting this vote by using their younger supporters to carry the messaging water. This seems the thought behind the below ad by San Juan Capistrano Councilmember Brian Maryott (R) who is running for Congress against Democrat Mike Levin in the CA-49.

But execution is everything. The ad seems to more stand out for how it uncomfortably enlists students as young as 15 years old to deliver highly scripted partisan exaggerations and inaccuracies. These include “My generation needs to dream big, but that does not leave room for the fairy tale of socialism.” Or "I don’t want the government dictating my career.”


The classic negative ad is alive and well. Its goals remain to drive up your opponent’s negatives and discourage turnout. This next ad from U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R) of Bakersfield does not count as a new trend, but it avoids the usual clichés of the genre in trying to squeeze a last few drops from a line of attack that served Trump well in 2016.


One staple of negative ads is having someone other than the candidate deliver the dark messaging. But campaigns vary widely in using their own candidate voices in other ads, including biographical ads.

But hearing directly from a candidate is often more effective, especially about issues they feel deeply. In fact, you wonder how less exaggerated and sinister-sounding negative ads would be if the paying candidate had to do all narration. Here’s a refreshing, effective ad from Congressman T.J. Cox (D) using his own voice:

Christy Smith (D) has a similarly effective bio ad in her CA-25 Congressional race against Mike Garcia (R). The race is a repeat of the May 12 special election when Smith lost to Garcia to fill Katie Hill’s vacated seat:

Then there’s the exception that proves the rule, but this requires just the right surrogate, as in this ad by CA-8 Democratic candidate Chris Bubser and her daughter:

bottom of page