The doctor takes in her patient’s concerned frown. She nods reassuringly, consulting charts on the tablet in her lap. She reaches for a bottle of prescription medicine. “I want you to take these with plenty of fluids,” she says with a smile.
The director stopped the scene: The doctor was an actor, her stethoscope was fake, the tablet was plastic, the pill bottle empty.
But on camera, it was a 15-second snippet of ordinary life — the makings of a perfect clip of stock footage, a key building block for the “real people”-filled campaign ads that are so popular these days.
There is a burgeoning industry devoted to filming these clips, staged and framed to capture scenes so cheerily generic that they could work for a variety of advertisers — Republican, Democratic, issue advocacy or otherwise — who simply download the footage from the Internet and slip them into the commercials they are able to assemble more cheaply than ever.
A few weeks from now, this “doctor” with the fake stethoscope might be on your TV, a mute scene enhanced by a voice-over booming on about Obamacare or retirement or Medicaid. Two seconds later, the ad might jump to a scene in an urban classroom. Then maybe a bakery. A field of wheat. A biracial couple in front of their first house. A parade of waving American flags.
Whatever the image a campaign wants to evoke, someone in the thriving 15-second-clip field has probably already filmed it, with more on the way as the 2016 election cycle heats up.
Filming in his Tenleytown condo this month, director Mark Kokkoros asked the “doctor,” part-time actor Cheryl Scungio, to trade her stethoscope for a dark-gray blazer. The pill bottle and blood pressure cup on the table were replaced by a tea set and a black binder — and voilà, Scungio was suddenly a financial adviser.
Kokkoros has been shooting stock footage for a living since 2009, the year industry observers say the demand for generic imagery really took off. Photo agencies such as Getty Images and start-ups such as Shutterstock and Pond5 compile millions of photos and videos and make them available for purchase. These Web-based archives have become an indispensable shortcut for creative directors, who previously had to spend countless hours and money developing their own libraries of footage. Republican advertising consultant Fred Davis, best known for his work with John McCain’s presidential campaign, has pretty much given up shooting any kinds of scenes he can just as easily buy online.
“Say you wanted a farmer in Montana,” Davis said. With stock footage, “that might cost you $500. Actually going to Montana, which would only be an incremental improvement, might cost $5,000. It became a completely 100 percent economic issue.”
But while stock footage is cheap and easy — some clips start as low as $19 — its ubiquity and staginess can also set up campaigns for mockery.
In September, the Jeb Bush-supporting super PAC Right to Rise USA released an advertisement portraying Bush as the antithesis to Donald Trump. It began with clips of a snarling, combative Trump, before switching to Bush promising that “my message will be an optimistic one,” over images of American flags fluttering, the Statue of Liberty standing proudly, and the sun rising over a beautiful field . . . that unfortunately turned out to be in England. As for those noble construction workers hefting a metal beam? They were working on a building in Asia.
After Politico wrote about the origins of the images, stock-footage creator Daniel Hurst — who did not create those particular scenes — said he started getting inquiries from potential clients asking whether his clips were “made in the U.S.A.”
Hurst is all too familiar with stock-footage fails. In 2010, he uploaded a clip of his son waving an American flag in slow motion. It had the perfect ingredients for a winning political message: a cute kid with an expression so neutral it could be taken for concern or contentment, plus an obvious symbol of patriotism. Davis is pretty sure he used the clip first, in an advertisement for the Ronald Reagan-founded PAC Citizens for the Republic. (In a phone interview, Davis seemed disappointed to learn the flag waver was the son of the director instead of a young patriot in his natural setting.)
In the five years since it first appeared, “young boy waving flag, slow motion” has appeared in ads for Scott Walker, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, BuzzFeed reported this year.
Hurst’s son doesn’t mind at all.
“My kids generally love doing it,” Hurst said. “They enjoy the process of shooting and seeing themselves in commercials and things. We might not shop at that store or support that political candidate, but that’s just the nature of the business. And all of our family and people we know, they see us on TV and they know what’s going on.”
Professionals such as Hurst and Kokkoros are constantly looking to fill the need of all types of advertisements, consulting with the stock agencies to find out what kinds of downloads are in demand. Lately, it has been time-lapse images of busy streets, bird’s-eye footage of big cities, and people wielding high-tech equipment, looking authoritative. For campaign season, Shutterstock curator Robyn Lange recommends filmmakers shoot anything with traditional American themes.
“Cornfields, windmills, horses in pasture . . . anything you could find within the lines of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is what they like to present,” Lange said.
Shutterstock contributor Bill Burlingham specializes in what he calls “The Hero Shot.” He transforms his photo studio into any number of small businesses and transforms an actor into an archetypal American worker. The coffeehouse barista, the greasy auto mechanic, the young teacher — they stand proudly in front of their pseudo-workplaces, staring wordlessly through the camera and straight into your living room with a gaze that assures that they’re just like you.
“We’re not ashamed to deal in cliches,” Burlingham said. “They sell.”
Full-time stock-footage producers can earn about $50,000 to $75,000 a year. They typically pay the actors — part-timers or amateurs, some with experience as extras or in public-service announcements — about $30 to $50 an hour. Actors sign waivers allowing their images to be used for any type of advertisement, except perhaps those of sensitive topics, such as medical conditions.
Sometimes Burlingham dispenses with actors and just films himself. He’s a white man in his 60s, a key demographic for many political advertisers. You can buy clips of him as a corn farmer, a grandfather, a “senior man worrying about his bills,” a runner, a man with a knee injury, a professor and an engineer.
Does the public realize that he’s not any of those things? Do they care that the people starring in ads for political candidates may not even know those candidates exist?
“At the end of the day, a stock shot is a visual representation of an idea or people or policy,” said Julian Mulvey, who makes advertisements for Democrats. “Stock shots get a bad name, but the reality is they save campaigns thousands of dollars.”
But a truly good ad cannot exist on stock alone, Mulvey said. The best, in fact, may not rely on any stock at all. If a candidate can muster supporters of various ages and races who will appear in an ad for free, that candidate probably will do pretty well at the polls anyway.
“Real people, real voters, unscripted, is often more powerful than what lots of people can devise around a conference-room table,” Mulvey said.
Unless, of course, you need high-definition stock footage of a lot of people around a conference-room table.