Behind the Screen: the Making of Our Citizens United Ad


Alison Kim is an intern with the Sunlight Foundation. Her project was to develop an ad advocating for a better campaign finance disclosure regime in the wake of Citizens United. She wrote this post sharing her thoughts on the process.

The idea to use the Mad Men intro to illustrate Citizens United v FEC was tossed up spontaneously in conversation and just stuck – the image of a man falling through a city of advertisements was so conveniently applicable to our world of unlimited advocacy spending.  Aside from the obvious thematic parallels, the video is meant to disrupt expectations regarding a highly recognizable pop-culture meme and initiate political action.  We designed this video to appropriate the persuasion of mass media marketing tactics to inspire investigations into the fine print of the Citizens United Supreme Court case, our framework for a disclosure regime and Congress’ response to Citizens United via the DISCLOSE bill.

The actual execution of this video was not as clear cut, and we experimented with many different styles before we found the right one.  One thing that was regretfully shelved for this particular project was footage of one of our developers, Eric Mill, pretending to fall in his “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” Green Man costume.

While this material was greatly entertaining, it didn’t quite have the fluidity and momentum that was so integral to the original video.  So instead of using a real person’s figure, I composited the man from the original video into a created setting – which I have to say basically felt like sitting down and splitting hairs for an unlimited number of hours.  However it was a necessary evil in conveying that dreamy, serene sense of drowning slowly in the ubiquitous influence effective ads tend to transmit into our culture.  The sense of drowning then led to the integration of water as a motif in the video, with the image of pouring rain and rivers underlining the destructive consequences of an overflow of money in politics.

One of the biggest remaining questions then was how to logically work lobbyists, corporations, and unions into the framework of the piece.  We played around with a couple different ideas, one of which was to have the man plunge into the river and use a well known symbol of grassroots campaigns (see right).

We planned to bind the big fish to money wielding interests and the smaller fish to individual activists and the seven parts of the Sunlight Foundation’s Comprehensive Disclosure Regime.  However, time was of the essence both in terms of the video’s duration and our workflow.  We decided that shifting the landscape to a completely new aquatic world with a slightly different internal logic might create cognitive dissonance that distracted from the overall message.  We determined instead to use boats as a metaphor for the ability of corporations and lobbyists to navigate and thrive in this political ecosystem.

This video posed many interesting challenges that I couldn’t have predicted. The most interesting issue was reconciling the fact that I was purposefully inciting anxiety about our dystopic world by using emotional triggers (haunting ambient music, rainstorms and the image of a man falling to his death) to convey a politically driven message.  The more I sat editing political ads into the shapes of buildings, rivers etc., the more it occurred to me that the tactics I was using were frequently mirrored in the ads I was critiquing.  One of my favorite instantiations of this is about twenty seconds into our video, when footage of the fear mongering wolves (originally used in one of George W. Bush’s campaign ads) is used to cause anxiety about the undisclosed influence that lurks behind campaign messages.  While their is a degree of self-consciousness in the video in regards to this issue, if I could do it again I would have articulated that a bit more obviously.

I also would have liked to include an explanation of why our seven-point Comprehensive Disclosure Regime is so important, and the different ways the Senate and House versions of the DISCLOSE bill, do or don’t incorporate them.  While I didn’t have the time to effectively gel all of these elements together visually, you can read about Sunlight’s take on the DISCLOSE bill in this article written by Lisa Rosenberg here.  With all that said, thanks for taking a minute to watch, and I’d appreciate any comments and input!

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  • Rebecca

    I really enjoyed the way this was edited, but I think it’s a style that is appealing to both my age and the way I view technology. One of my main questions about this ad, would be to ask, who the target audience is? All ads have someone in mind–who do you have in mind? Who are you trying to acknowledge? Who do you want to respond to this ad?

    On a different note, I wish this ad would have incorporated the voice over all the way along. My first thought was that this would be either all ambience music or voice over + ambience music. To have them both, and the voice over introduced when it was, felt like a huge imbalance. Perhaps because the voice over seemed to coincide with the man sitting right side up? (As an aside, it really bothered me to feel as if I had to identify with one person, instead of having multiple people present in the ad.)

    Overall, I think this ad is effective for a younger generation–those in their 20s maybe even early 30s. People who are attracted by the visuals, the music, the mood of this ad, but also the people most likely to look the information up online, and watch this ad online.