A behind-the-scenes look at the making of a political advertisement

Aug 15, 2021 | Fleischaker/Greene

The cavernous space of Studio A at StagePost in Nashville was dimly lit on the morning of Oct. 27. A few softboxes hung from the ceiling and two light panels on stands provided the only light as technicians worked to assemble a simple set for the coming shoot.

The  assignment: create a 30-second assignment: creat a 30-second online advertisement supporting a ballot measure in Louisiana, Amendment 2, that would reduce the amount of control the state legislatture had over higher education funding. 

The actors changed into T-shirts from various public Louisiana universities as John Rowley, a partner at the Fletcher Rowley communications agency, distributed paperwork and scripts. As the first actor made his way in front of the camera, Rowley, standing behind the producer’s table, shouted some advice for the assembled cast.

“Don’t worry about looking good – you’re in the hands of professionals,” he told them.

Rowley has been a part of the Fletcher Rowley agency for over 20 years. As a communications student at Western Kentucky University, Rowley said he first became interested in a career in political advertising when an advisor connected him with Bill Fletcher.

“I thought, ‘that’s a job? I want that job!’,” he said.

Twenty years later, Rowley is a partner in that firm and produces commercials and advertising for mostly Democratic clients across the country. The Louisiana advertisement was just one of his firm’s many projects in October.

“We will probably make 120 political ads this month,” Rowley said. “At any given time I’m working on at least three or four spots.”

For this particular spot, Rowley and his firm worked with a consultant in Louisiana on the script and messaging. According to Rowley, the content of the ad wasn’t necessarily tested out in research line-by-line but was a combination of general political research and some research specific to this spot.

“People react well to ‘this is the only state in the country where politicians have this much power’,” Rowley said. “But I think you’d be surprised at how little in politics is actually focus-grouped and poll-tested.”

Rowley coached each actor in the advertisement through their lines from behind a producer’s booth off-camera.

“The vibe is very conversational. You’re not trying to give a speech or anything,” he said as the first actor made his way in front of the camera.

A teleprompter operator sat at the ready, rewinding when actors needed to re-record a line or two. Rowley would often offer critiques on the actors’ executions, telling them to enunciate certain words more or change their attitude while saying a line.

The first line of the script read: “Louisiana legislators have more control over higher education funding than politicians in any other state.” Rowley had some of the actors place emphasis on the word “more” and “any,” while others were instructed to approach the sentence as if they were dumbfounded by the idea.

“I just want to give my editors plenty of options for them to work with,” he said.

The entire process of seven actors reading through the script multiple times lasted for three hours, with Rowley peppering encouragement throughout. He shouted “Money!” whenever a line was read that struck him as good, and he made on-the-fly adjustments to the reading style of each actor.

At the beginning of the shoot, Rowley said that the work done that day would be made into a spot later that night. Back at the offices of Fletcher Rowley in downtown Nashville, Rowley’s team was hard at work putting the ad together.

Rowley’s offices are equipped with a small studio and a voiceover booth, but because the actors did the talking in this particular spot, no voiceover would be used. Instead, some upbeat music was laid down behind the actors as they spoke.

A team of editors were busy sequencing video clips in the same order as the script and choosing their selected lines. The first-draft cut (without music) was presented to Rowley just four hours after shooting wrapped.

Rowley gave the editors some feedback: he wanted a bit more camera variety and some small tweaks to which actors said which line.

Not 30 minutes passed before a new edit was finished, complete with all the trappings of a typical political advertisement: quick camera cuts, energetic music and small white text that detailed who paid for the spot.

Rowley watched the new cut intently as the group crowded around a computer monitor. The ad progressed, cutting between actors and building to the climax of the script.

“Vote yes.”

–Brandon Carter

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