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!