How a Ragtag Group of Socialist Filmmakers Produced One of the Most Viral Campaign Ads of 2018

Means of Production, a new working-class-focused media firm, teamed up with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to produce her viral campaign video.

Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, poses for a picture in Bronx,  New York, Saturday, April 21, 2018. (Photo: Andres Kudacki)
Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez poses for a picture in Bronx on April 21, 2018. Photo: Andres Kudacki for The Intercept

Bronx activist and community organizer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is challenging longtime New York Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley in his primary on June 26. By all measures, the former Bernie Sanders organizer is an underdog, going up against the powerful chair of the House Democratic Caucus who has more than $1.6 million in cash on hand (Ocasio-Cortez has raised around $200,000).

But in a social media-focused campaign video released on May 30, Ocasio-Cortez sought to turn this money gap into a liability for Crowley — telling a story about her life and the lives of thousands of other working-class New Yorkers who continue to be squeezed by the high cost of health care, education, and housing.

“This race is about people versus money,” Ocasio-Cortez says in the ad. “We’ve got people. They’ve got money.”

Within a day, the video had over 300,000 views.

It’s not hard to see why. The video is tightly produced, crafting a narrative about an organizer-candidate who has the same sort of working-class background that is representative of the majority of New York’s 14th Congressional District — the median income in the district is $53,512 — taking on a powerful incumbent backed by Wall Street dollars.

What you may be surprised to find out is that the video was produced not by Hollywood video production veterans or high-dollar political consultants, but by a ragtag pair of socialists based in Detroit.

Last year, Detroit-based Democratic Socialists of America activists Naomi Burton and Nick Hayes formed Means of Production, a media production company that works exclusively for the working class. (DSA has since endorsed Ocasio-Cortez.)

Both were veterans of other communications firms and were troubled by the fact that many of these firms worked both for progressive candidates and corporations working against the very same causes.

“It just didn’t compute to us that the same people creating working-class propaganda are creating essentially propaganda for corporations,” Hayes said.

“We did this, really, with the goal of building kind of an effective, functional left media structure,” Burton explained.

She first reached out to the Ocasio-Cortez campaign in March, after she learned about the candidate on Facebook. “Her message was bold. It was unapologetic. It had a clear leftist vision that I could understand as just a normal person, that I thought other working people could identify with,” she explained. “And after doing a little bit of digging, I realized she didn’t have a campaign video.”

So she sent Ocasio-Cortez a Twitter direct message explaining how Means of Production could help the campaign. A month later, the team went to New York City, and a month after that, the video was released. Thus, in less than 2 1/2 months, a pair of socialist upstart filmmakers in Detroit conceived, produced, and released one of the most viral campaign videos of 2018.

Hayes was hesitant to disclose the campaign’s exact budget for the commercial, but told The Intercept that the entire project cost less than $10,000. Costs were kept low because virtually everyone in the ad was a community member, a volunteer, or a member of Ocasio-Cortez’s family. Much of the video was produced simply by following Ocasio-Cortez around during the campaign. The closing shot of the film is set in an apartment.

“A lot of the footage, like following … the person putting up campaign posters and things like that, that’s just people out doing work in the community for her, in the campaign,” Hayes said.

The success of the video shoot raises the question: Why do candidates spend so much money on high-priced consultants who produce boring, safe videos, when ideologically aligned, camera-savvy activists can do it quicker, cheaper, and with more vitality?

“For a lot of these political candidates, who have nothing to offer people … staging a whole thing and creating this whole kind of fake world is necessary because, you know, you’re working from nothing, you have nothing to work with,” Hayes said, crediting Ocasio-Cortez’s political vision with inspiring the themes of the video. “We’re interested in working with people that are really trying to push forward working-class politics and these sort of basic social safety net programs. And they have things to offer people. So it allows us the flexibility to be a little bit more creative.”

The video’s crescendo is driven by Ocasio-Cortez’s narration, which she also scripted:

This race is about people versus money — we’ve got people, they’ve got money. It’s time we acknowledged that not all Democrats are the same. That a Democrat who takes corporate money, profits off foreclosure, doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air, cannot possibly represent us.

What the Bronx and Queens needs is ‘Medicare for All,’ tuition-free public college, a federal jobs guarantee, and criminal justice reform.

To Hayes, movement candidates like Ocasio-Cortez and Means of Production are a natural fit.

“I don’t think you could drop on the ground of, like, a Hillary Clinton campaign and find people so willing to be a part of a production,” he said. “You really have to have someone who’s charismatic and inspirational and leading that movement there on the ground in order to make that viable.”

Correction: June 5, 2018, 5:20 p.m.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the closing shot of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 campaign video is set in a bodega. In fact, it is set in an apartment.

Top photo: Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez poses for a picture in the Bronx on April 21, 2018.

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