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Review: Hillary Clinton’s announcement video is surprisingly bold, fascinating filmmaking

In her ad, Hillary Clinton positions herself as just one of the many, many people in America with big dreams.
In her ad, Hillary Clinton positions herself as just one of the many, many people in America with big dreams.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Hillary Clinton's video announcing her run for president in 2016 is a fascinating piece of filmmaking, and it does something I haven't seen a political campaign ad do in quite this way.

The video attempts not to minimize Clinton's placement in her campaign, but to portray it as a natural outgrowth of a mass, populist movement. The story of Clinton's campaign as expressed by this ad isn't one of an inevitable, indomitable candidate. It's one that attempts to portray Clinton's run as an idea she had a couple of months ago that she's been saving up for.

And if it works, it could change how these sorts of announcements are approached for the foreseeable future.

How campaign trailers usually work

The "presidential campaign trailer" is a relatively recent phenomenon. All you need to do to see this is to look back at Clinton's announcement video from the 2008 campaign, which is shockingly bad. (The camera keeps shifting back and forth, like it's been placed on the base of a rotating fan.)

However, the basis of the campaign announcement trailer is similar to movie trailers. The idea is to provide a tease that will get you excited about the product being sold — in this case, the candidate.

Thus, most of these trailers suggest they are the story of the candidate and just the candidate. Let's take a look at Rand Paul's first two campaign videos to get a sense of how this often works. Both are well-done versions of the form, and both suggest Paul is the man who will lead us out of the darkness.

Let's start with his announcement video.

It literally features lights beaming down on him from above:

Rand Paul has light beaming down upon him from above.

And when we see him, he's usually at the center of the screen, bright red in the background to focus our attention on him. The human eye is drawn to differences, and all of those hot reds contrast perfectly with the cool blues at center screen. (And then, even more center-screen than that, is his red tie.) He is, in essence, commanding the screen. There's nowhere else to look. It's a beautifully composed image:

Rand Paul gives a speech.

It positions him as a leader of a movement, a movement that he hopes will turn into a presidency:

Here's how Rand Paul's video ends.

The second video posted to Paul's account is called "Kelley's Words" and focuses on memories of Paul from his wife, Kelley Paul. If the announcement video wants to position Paul as a leader of humans, then this video aims to make us see his more human side. Broadly speaking, these are the two types of campaign ads not specifically focused on policy positions — the "leader" ad and the "human interest" ad.

Look at how "Kelley's Words" filters the couple through the gauzy haze of memory:

Rand Paul and Kelley Paul are in love in the past.

And when we see Kelley Paul herself, she's speaking to us from just off-center. Center screen — as we saw with Rand Paul above — suggests command. Off-center suggests approachability, while still some degree of control. (Were Kelley Paul shifted all the way to the right or left, our brains would subconsciously perceive her as losing control of the situation.)

Kelley Paul talks about her husband, Rand Paul.

Unlike with the use of reds and blues above, Kelley Paul fits comfortably in her environment. This is a very domestic, nonconfrontational image, and when you combine the images of the two spouses together, you see what the campaign is going for — Rand Paul is very much a leader, but he's also somebody who might tell some great stories at a dinner party.

Even the textual interstitials of "Kelley's Words" are softer than those in the announcement video.

Rand Paul helped his grandmother as a child.

The problem, as you can probably see, is that if you watch just one ad in isolation, you get only half the portrait of Rand Paul that his campaign wishes to sell you on. Watch just the announcement video, and you might find yourself thinking he seems a little too commanding. Watch just "Kelley's Words," and you might find yourself thinking Rand Paul is a walking, talking puff piece.

So what's neat about Clinton's "Getting Started" is how it attempts to do both at the same time, and it does so by removing the candidate herself almost entirely.

Clinton's video: A movement of people

The first things we see in "Getting Started" aren't anything we'd associate with campaign imagery. They are, instead, a bunch of people going about their daily lives. And that goes on for most of the ad.

Like here's this guy doing some work or something:

He's a fifth generation business owner.

And this young woman has a car. (We don't know much else about her.)

This young woman has a car.

Notice the framing again. All of these people are close to center but just off of it. We're meant to be pleased that they're taking control of their lives — everybody in the ad has some big goal they're working toward — but also think that we could just walk up to them and start having a conversation.

Like we could with all of these people!

An assortment of people in the Hillary Clinton ad.
(screenshot; photo illustration by Todd VanDerWerff/Vox)

(Side note: the compositional weight of the vast majority of images in the ad is to the center left, which is a great, sly visual joke that I refuse to believe is an accident.)

Look who else is starting something. Look who else is just off-center, so we can still approach her with our concerns and questions:

Hillary Clinton is running for president.

What this accomplishes is twofold. First of all, it reaffirms that Hillary Clinton has big, big goals, and she's going to do anything she can to accomplish them. And second, it subtly reinforces her connection to everybody else in the video. They're all part of the same movement, the same goal. The woman who's moving so her daughter can go to a better school has a dream that is no better or worse than Clinton's ambition of running for president.

Indeed, the final image we see is literally Clinton's logo made up of all of these other people:

Look at all of these people who are excited about Hillary Clinton running for president.

To a degree, Clinton can get away with this because she doesn't need to introduce herself to the American public. If you are of voting age and an American citizen, there is a very good chance you already know who she is, as Jonathan Cohn points out.

But Clinton's ad also hits at something fundamental to her 2016 message — and, indeed, to her message throughout her career.

It takes a village

Remember Clinton's book It Takes a Village? The book, published while she was first lady, took its title from the old aphorism that it takes a village to raise a child. There was, at the time, much mockery of it in right-wing circles for being the sort of thing a hippie might say.

And after the publication of It Takes a Village, Clinton pivoted into a role as a senator and, eventually, secretary of state, both positions that underlined and highlighted her leadership qualities, particularly the latter. In her 2008 campaign, Clinton often underlined just how much stronger she was than Barack Obama, particularly in the infamous 3 am ad.

What's interesting about this ad, then, is that Clinton is pivoting back to the idea of it taking a village. This isn't an ad about how Hillary Clinton is going to run for president. It's an ad about how all of us are going to vote for Hillary Clinton for president, should she earn our votes. Clinton isn't the one. She's one of many, and we're all working together to make the country run.

What's canny about this is how completely it exists within the current Democratic Party pitch, just as Paul's ads exist within the Republican Party's pitch. If the GOP is all about rugged individualism and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, then the Democrats are all about what we can accomplish as a community of people working together toward a common goal.

This is actually a bit of a risk. Even in 2008, both Clinton and Obama sold themselves as individuals and leaders first, members of a collective second. And American narrative tends to be based on the idea of one bold person taking a stand for what's right. (We, more than any other country, seem most infatuated with the Great Man theory of history.) But even though Clinton's ad might seem cheesy or goofy at first, it's actually a sophisticated break from what's come before. Now the question is whether it will work.

Watch: Do political ads actually work?

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