brand storytelling, politics and culture — January 29, 2016 at 4:50 pm

Why The Bernie Sanders America Video Works So Well


Whatever you might think of the candidate, the Bernie Sanders America video is compelling, and an example of brilliant storytelling.

I’d like to explain a little bit about how and why this video packs the punch it does.

I’m going to get into technical details, which to some of you could seem a bit obsessive. You might, after all, think that the spot is emotionally moving simply on account of the Simon and Garfunkel “America” soundtrack and the classic Americana imagery.

And to a certain extent you’d be right. The song is powerful on its own and for many Americans the updated Norman Rockwell imagery does touch something deep indeed.

But for a professional storyteller, the details are where the real action lies. It’s the craftsmanship—that series of finely-tuned creative decisions—that take a story from garden-variety good to great mind-blowing great.

In my courses on storytelling I talk a lot about Idea and Structure, so let’s start there.

1) The Bernie Sanders America Video Is Built On A Core Idea

The spot is built on a proposition: “We’ve all gone to look for America,” the chorus from Simon and Garfunkel’s plaintive 60s hit, which plays throughout.

That the spot has an idea at all—that it’s asserting something rather than merely stringing together a series of images with rousing music—puts it ahead of most attempts at storytelling right off the bat.

Moreover, the proposition is noteworthy, especially in light of what might have been said in a political spot like this.

For one, it speaks about “all of us,” which ties into Sanders’ communitarian worldview. And what we’re all doing is looking for something. We’re lost, and together we’re trying to find our way home.

This idea, and the feeling it elicits, makes us understand the Americana imagery in a particular way. There is a sense of yearning that is unique in political advertising.

Just consider how different you might think and feel about the if the idea was “It’s Morning in America” or “Make America Great Again.” Or how less emotional the spot would have been if there was simply an instrumental track underneath.

2) The Bernie Sanders America Video Is Clearly Structured

A good story needs not only an idea, but a structure that supports the idea. Something that moves the narrative forward.

Now, the music itself and the logic in the lyrics does part of the job. But there’s more to it than that.

On the surface, one might see what’s going on as as a montage, a series of quick cuts.

And yes, the cuts are moving swiftly, but they’re also moving in a direction, with a clear beginning middle and end.

A little deconstruction to illustrate what I mean:

Overall, the Bernie Sanders America video is split into two acts. And within those acts there are what I call “scenes,” meaning groups of shots that lay a particular stepping stone, so to speak, on the path towards resolution at the end.

Act One:  The Set Up

Scene One:  We open with an iconic American farm scene. We’re in the mythic heartland, but it’s modern America with windmills in the distance. We see farms, houses.

Scene Two:  We move into a small city. We see the skyline and people in cafes at computers.

Scene Three: Sanders is introduced, intercut with the classic imagery. He’s listening to the people, leaning in.

Scene Four:  Now it’s Bernie’s turn to say something in response. Act One closes with him and his wife walking energetically as he’s about to make a speech before a large crowd.bernie sanders america

Halftime: Asserting the Idea

With the first act having served as a set-up, we now get a series of quick motion graphics. Hundreds of postage-stamp size photos of Americans flash before us in grids as the “We’ve all gone to look for America” appears in text, in time with Simon and Garfunkful. It’s an exciting sequence that leads us into Act Two, towards the America we’ve been looking for.

Act Two: Resolution

The America we arrive at is one of all the people, listening together and cheering as Bernie Sanders gives them hope for a better tomorrow.

This second act of the Bernie Sanders America video is structured more simply than the first, comprised essentially of one scene. And that makes sense, for the disparate elements of Act One have now come together.  We’ve all gone to look for America and here were are as One, having found it.

The Bernie Sanders America Video Shows That Emotion Is Something You Craft

To return to what I said above: some of you might consider an analysis like this overthinking. But for storytelling practitioners, getting into the nitty-gritty is what the craft is all about.

I could go on, for example, to discuss the rhythm of the edit, the sequence of longer or shorter shots and how your eye moves fluidly between them, but I’ll leave that for another time.

The point is that all of the elements within the spot’s overarching idea have been meticulously crafted to give it the forward motion that turns what would just be a series of events into a coherent, meaningful and emotional story.

Whatever kind of story you tell, whether it’s in business, politics or art, you’re always hoping to engage your audience emotionally.

I hope this gave you a bit of an insight on how that doesn’t happen by itself, but rather through a rational process of manipulating and shaping story elements to touch people where it matters most.

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