Storytelling Within the Political Machine
Examining CA Ballot Proposition 15’s Advertisements
Proposition 15 was a California ballot measure in the November 2020 election that aimed to amend the state’s Constitution to adjust the limitations on property taxes introduced by the 1978 California Proposition 13. Colloquially referred to as ‘split roll,’ Proposition 15 would have increased taxes on large commercial properties by assessing them at market value. Analysts projected that this would have raised 11.5 billion dollars for California’s public schools, community colleges, and other government services.
For this SF Urban Film Fest program, panelists Ynze Bijl, a producer and director for campaign ads, and Tenoch Flores, a political campaign communications consultant, analyzed 3 ‘Yes’ and 3 ‘No’ commercials that ran during the Prop 15 campaign.
Even though both panelists have expertise in the field of political campaigns, neither worked directly on either side of the Prop 15 campaign, allowing them to share their unbiased takes on the ads.
Starting with the Yes on Prop 15 side, the first commercial featured stock footage portraying ‘corporate CEO fat cats’ in suits, while voice-over narration explained how they are not ‘paying their fair share’ and taking advantage of tax handouts. Flores explained in his analysis how the use of a ‘villain’ (in this case, the generic corporate CEO) is a common tactic in political ads like this.
The ad then quickly cut to more stock footage of people representing homeowners, renters, and small-business owners, implying that Prop 15 would help these groups lessen their tax burden. Bijl criticized the lack of tone change and aggressive music as the short video transitioned to show the group of people that Prop 15 would benefit.
The following two Yes on Prop 15 commercials also used a similar ‘corporations need to pay their fair share’ framing to try and persuade voters. The second ad attempted to appeal to homeowners by stating that taxpayers would save $121 per year for the average home. Both Flores and Bijl agreed that using an exact (and relatively low) figure like this isn’t very persuasive; it could have the opposite effect.
Next up were the three No on Prop 15 ads. Right away, the first ad featured a scene with a small business owner closing down his restaurant while a narrator spoke about the dangers of Prop 15 over dramatic piano music. It was designed to appeal to small business owners and homeowners. Flores commented how the ad leveraged the times we are in as the COVID-19 lockdowns have already negatively impacted many small businesses.
The subsequent No on Prop 15 ad, in Spanish, used the same dramatic piano music. Instead of a small business owner, it featured a dejected-looking family putting their belongings into a moving van, presumably losing their home due to unaffordable property taxes. Bijl commented that even though the acting was overdramatic here, the message was clear to voters — California is expensive and unaffordable, and Prop 15 will make it even more so.
The final No on Prop 15 ad also featured a small business closing down, this time featuring a barbershop. Like the previous No on Prop 15 ads, the narrator says flat out that ‘homeowners are next’ — implying that homeowners will be subject to higher taxes in the future, even though Proposition 15 would not have raised taxes on residential properties.
Overall, the panelists agreed that generally, the No on Prop 15 ads were more persuasive. The ‘No’ ads were more effective at utilizing storytelling to convince voters that Prop 15 would hurt everyday Californians.
Although the vote was close in the end (it passed in California’s most populous county of Los Angeles), Flores concludes that ultimately the Yes on Prop 15 campaign had to compete with too many other progressive causes at the ballot box (including voting Donald Trump out of office and flipping U.S. Senate seats) that it may not have received the attention that it needed to pass.