Political Ads Are Leaving the Sappy Music Behind

How The Natural, The Terminator, and Halloween inform the music in campaign ads.

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
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Jeff Dufour
Oct. 30, 2018, 8:01 p.m.

Thomas Oh, who’s running for Virginia’s 8th District seat as one of the youngest candidates this cycle, narrated a recent ad on Spotify over up-tempo dance pop.

The music in one of of 2018’s most viral ads, for MJ Hegar in Texas, borrowed heavily from The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”

And the background music for a negative ad that Sen. Bill Nelson ran against Rick Scott in Florida consisted of little more than a droning, distorted bass note.

The deluge of political ads this year means boom times for composers and music publishers. Not only are they licensing songs to campaigns more than ever before, they’re also getting more creative in how they work with political ad makers, moving away from the cliched sounds of French horns and violins as they score campaign spots with everything from electronica to bluegrass.

“We see an uptick in every election cycle, but we’ve never seen anything like this,” says Deborah Fisher, senior account director with APM Music, which licenses more than 630,000 tracks for use in movies, TV, video games, and other media. While she won’t have firm data until after the elections, she says 2018 “has been unprecedented in terms of music searches and licensing”—not just because of the quantity of ads, but because the "creatives" now take music's role in political spots so much more seriously.

To get an idea of the breadth of political music, we can look back to 2016. According to Trax on the Trail, a project which cataloged all the uses of music by the presidential candidates, White House hopefuls alone commissioned 460 original compositions and used 2,583 preexisting or popular songs.

Despite some notable exceptions by the likes of Rachel Platten and Simon and Garfunkel, the vast majority of these were not recognizable popular songs.

For starters, ad makers are often skittish about using a famous song, for fear that it could eclipse the candidate’s message in the mind of the listener.

Budget is another factor, especially when it comes to statewide and district-wide campaigns. A piece of production music from an online library typically costs hundreds of dollars, versus tens of thousands of dollars to license a popular song.

A swan song for symphonies?

Right in the middle lies a sweet spot, in the low-to-mid four figures, where ad makers can hire a composer to write a custom score, or a professional sound engineer who’s an expert at syncing music to a script or video clips. “It’s rare that you have the piece of music at the outset,” says Mark Putnam, a veteran Democratic ad maker who produced President Obama’s 2008 television special on the eve of the election. “You write commercials based upon what the needs are of the campaign. [You] shoot it, then start editing and piecing it together. That’s when the music comes in.”

And like other ad makers, he’s begun taking a more expansive definition of what that music can be. An ad he produced for the Draft Joe Biden campaign in 2015 used simple plucks on one guitar string. His recent ad for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, in which she’s arm wrestling a burly bald guy, used a distorted electric guitar. His celebrated ad for Jason Kander in 2016 was the rare spot that used no music at all, just the sounds of the candidate assembling a rifle while blindfolded.

“Political ads can be cliche-ridden and music feeds into that problem,” he said. “For decades, you’d hear symphonies and swelling strings. And now we’re getting away from that. Now I’ll do a swing band, a ukulele, a solo violin. You want to work both sides of the brain in a voter: the logical and the emotional side.”

Ronald Rodman, a professor of music at Carleton College who’s studied the topic, says you need “to hit [voters] with meaning right off,” and the more creative the better. He cites the Obama campaign’s 2012 ad, which played Mitt Romney’s off-key rendition of “America the Beautiful,” while showing footage of abandoned factories and empty boardrooms.

“The most important ad is the one that gets noticed,” said Casey Phillips, an ad maker for Republican candidates. “But you’re driven by the tone of the ad and the budget of the campaign.” On a recent spot he produced for South Dakota gubernatorial candidate Marty Jackley, he had the luxury of scoring the entire 108-second ad, with each cue synced exactly to what’s on screen.

On a smaller campaign, he says, “you’re spending more time searching through stock music,” paying attention not only to mood but more specific factors as well, like “Does it have the cymbal crash in the right place?”

“There’s no reason not to stretch your legs creatively,” he says, so “we use every resource there is online.”

And there have never been more. Apart from the huge publishing firms, a plethora of smaller sound libraries are popping up all over cyberspace. A service called Melody Loops, which sells prerecorded electronic compositions, even offers a “Political Music” category. Among its choices are pieces titled “Innovation Time,” ”Corrupt Cops,” and “A New Life.”

A similar company called AudioSparx breaks it down even further, devoting a whole page to music for negative ads, labeled “Political Attack One” through “Political Attack Seventeen.” (Think of the cycling piano motif from the Halloween movies, or the ominous strings from The Dark Knight, and you’re on the right track.)

It’s no wonder such goosebump-inducing clips are in high demand. A study by the Wesleyan Media Project looked at 700 political ads from the 2012 election cycle. Fully 66 percent used music identified as “ominous/tense” or “sad/sorrowful,” while just 40.5 percent used “uplifting” music. (Only 2.6 percent of ads used no music at all.)

This music ... will be back

It’s a far cry from the infancy of political advertising, when simplistic, saccharine tunes were the norm. Rodman points out that campaign music for Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy were little more than jingles or “30-second ditties” without much emotional content.

In the intervening decades, however, musicians have learned to use certain “stylistic motifs,” such as hymns, marches, horror music, and Americana pop to evoke certain moods. Thanks to a lifetime of radio, TV, and movie consumption, voters now have an entire vocabulary of musical cues that they recognize.

Ad makers really learned to exploit this in the 1980s, says Berklee College of Music’s Matthew Nicholl, who scored political spots—for Bob Dole, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.

“At the time, Randy Newman’s score for The Natural had a big impact on advertising,” he said. “They all wanted that when they wanted positivity. The other big influence was The Terminator score, used for a lot of negative campaigns.”

And evolving tastes have continued to reverberate in political ads. Dance pop and droning electronica pop up occasionally. Republicans tend to lean on modern country sounds.

But, says Nicholl, advertising consultants tend to draw the line at hip-hop. “People stay away from urban sounds. They don’t want [politics] associated with the hip-hop culture,” he says. (This cycle, for example, the National Republican Congressional Committee attacked Antonio Delgado, a Democratic House candidate from New York, for his past as a rapper.)

Take Ben Carson. In one of the most maligned ads of the 2016 cycle, Carson’s presidential campaign ran a radio spot that cut clips of Carson speeches alongside a rapper rhyming about … Ben Carson.

The problem: He had said earlier that we can’t “allow the hip-hop community to destroy” our faith, families, and values.


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