Meet the man behind U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s ads

In a campaign ad aimed at showcasing Raphael Warnock's bipartisan work on behalf of Georgia's peanut farmers, he was showered with thousands of peanuts.

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

In a campaign ad aimed at showcasing Raphael Warnock's bipartisan work on behalf of Georgia's peanut farmers, he was showered with thousands of peanuts.

There are many things that contributed to U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock winning a full term on Tuesday. A muscular ground game. Strong turnout in early voting. The candidate’s skill on the campaign trail. The flaws of his opponent.

But high on any list has to be his ads.

Warnock’s signature became a series of spots — sometimes cheeky, sometimes earnest and sometimes downright goofy — that helped define the senator.

To be sure, Warnock’s team also unleashed a barrage of tough commercials attacking his Republican rival, Herschel Walker. But even in some of those, the ads skewered Walker with more of a wink than a sledgehammer.

The man behind the ads is Adam Magnus, who has worked with dozens of Democratic campaigns over 25 years, mostly in Senate and gubernatorial races.

In a political climate steeped in cynicism, Magnus said his goal with Warnock was different.

“We wanted to make you smile,” he said.

The sweet spot: an ad where Warnock came off as authentic, which reinforced what he had done for the state and still entertained the viewer, at least a little bit, Magnus said.

Connection forged in humor

Magnus first met Warnock in January 2020 as he was preparing to launch his first run. A self-described “Jewish guy from New Orleans,” Magnus wasn’t sure he would connect with a Black pastor at the pulpit of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church.

“We clicked right away,” Magnus recalled. Among the things that drew them together was a shared sense of humor. And that mindset has underscored some of Warnock’s most memorable ads.

After he was hired, Magnus spent Martin Luther King weekend holed up in an Atlanta hotel watching every Warnock speech and sermon he could get his hands on so he could accurately capture the pastor’s voice. For the ads to resonate, he needed to harness Warnock’s optimism and warmth, he said.

A trust quickly developed between the two men that has endured five elections.

How else to explain Magnus getting the senator earlier this year to stand waist-deep in peanuts — “That’s nuts,” Warnock exclaims — to showcase his bipartisan work supporting Georgia’s peanut farmers? Or to persuade him to get tackled by an 8-year-old boy in a football-themed spot?

Adam Magus, far left, is shown filming a Thanksgiving ad with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, one of 97 commercials the Warnock campaign aired this election cycle. (Courtesy Adam Magnus)

Credit: Courtesy Adam Magnus

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Credit: Courtesy Adam Magnus

According to Magnus, Warnock never nixed an idea. Instead, he would read what seemed like an outlandish proposal and laugh.

Is this really going to work? Warnock would ask.

We’re going to give it a try, Magnus would reply.

The spots have won praise from both sides.

In a tweet, Georgia-based conservative pundit Erick Erickson called them “objectively, some of the best political ads ever run.”

“I don’t know his ad team, but if I ever meet them, I’d buy them a drink,” Erickson said.

Bobby Kahn, a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia who runs a political media company, said the ads used understated humor effectively, which can be tricky.

“They had an edge to them and and made an important point,” Kahn said.

GOP strategist Brian Robinson called the Warnock commercials “talkers.”

“You could stand in a circle of Republican voters and they would say, under their breath, ‘Those Warnock ads are really, really good,’ ” Robinson said.

The reverend vs. the running back

Of the 97 ads Warnock aired during this year’s race, two, arguably, stood out.

One was a reprisal of the “Alvin the beagle” spot that debuted in 2020. In it, Warnock walked a beagle while he talked about his then-opponent, Kelly Loeffler, and her attacks on him. As he rounded a corner, Warnock deposited a bag, presumably of dog feces, into a trash can.

“I think Georgians will see her ads for what they are. Don’t you?” Warnock said.

Pretty soon it seemed everyone had seen the beagle ad. Warnock’s team even sold “Puppies 4 Warnock” merchandise.

But Alvin was not Warnock’s dog, a fact Walker and some Republicans seized upon as a mini-scandal, suggesting that it conveyed dishonesty.

When Alvin returned for an encore in the race against Walker, Magnus meticulously re-created the original — Warnock wore the same puffer vest, they filmed it on the same block of picket fences in Decatur and disposed of Alvin’s droppings in the same trash can.

But Magnus added an inside joke for the political junkies; “#1 canine volunteer” flashed briefly onscreen. Yes, this is a borrowed beagle, it seemed to say. So what?

If the first ad projected warmth and relatability, a remake was designed to remind viewers of why they liked Warnock in the first place: He’s a normal guy.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock with Alvin the Beagle in a screenshot from his campaign ad. The spot was a meticulous re-creation of a Warnock ad from last year's U.S. Senate runoff.

Credit: Screenshot

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Credit: Screenshot

The second ad involved eight Georgians who donned headphones to watch some of Walker’s head-scratching comments from the campaign trail.

Magnus said participants were told simply to react, to verbalize what was in the thought bubble above their heads.

“What the hell is he talking about?” one woman asks as Walker riffs on the relative strengths and weaknesses of vampires and werewolves.

“Is he for real?” another asks.

In the more than two-minute spot, Walker also talked about pregnant cows and good air vs. bad air.

“It’s embarrassing. Let’s call it what it is,” a man says, shaking his head.

The thinking behind the ad, Magnus said, was to have people say aloud what they had been thinking or talking about with their friends for the past seven months.

Robinson called that ad “devastating.”

It used Walker’s own words against him and had others make the case.

“He was able to drive a negative message without looking nasty himself,” Robinson said.

Magnus said his task became both simpler and more high-stakes during the runoff after Democratic wins in Arizona and Nevada.

“Once Senate control was off the table it came down to a race between two people,” he said.

“It was not Democrats against Republicans or (Joe) Biden against (Donald) Trump,” he said. “It was the reverend vs. the running back.”

And when the race became about character, Magnus said, there is no question who wins.

‘He was never off the air’

It helped that Warnock, who raised more money than any other candidate this election cycle, had the budget to get his ads made and, perhaps more importantly, seen. The Democrat spent about $99 million on buys for commercials that began running in January, said Rick Dent, a Georgia strategist who tracks media buys.

“He was never off the air,” Dent said.

Another plus was that a slew of pro-Warnock outside groups were flooding the airwaves with ads attacking Walker, giving the Warnock campaign a little breathing room to do positive ads and build its candidate’s brand.

So what will Magnus do now that the race is is finally over?

He’d like to sleep, spend time with his family and catch up on other work at his firm, Magnus Pearson Media, which he founded in 2019 with fellow strategist Elizabeth Pearson. But there is one more bit of unfinished business with Warnock.

“I want to watch him do the job for six more years,” Magnus said.