Gun-toting Rep. Lauren Boebert, Baltimore-bashing congressional hopeful Kim Klacik, Texas transplant “Big” Dan Rodimer and a slew of the most right-wing politicians in the country have a Minnesota company to thank for a good slice of their fame.
Arsenal Media Group, a relatively new political firm headquartered in the Twin Cities metro, has emerged from obscurity over the past year to become the hottest ad production firm churning out viral videos for the vanguard of conservative politicians and right-wing groups.
The firm came to prominence with a series of highly stylized and formulaic ads for figures as well known as Donald Trump Jr. to local figures with less of a national footprint, like Doug Wardlow, the Republican hoping for a rematch against Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.
Boebert’s ad promising she’d carry a Glock around Washington D.C.? That was Arsenal. Klacik’s mega-viral ad accusing Democrats of destroying Baltimore? Arsenal’s handiwork. And Arsenal also produced ads for Rodimer’s Nevada congressional campaign — and a few months later produced his latest ad in which he code-switched into a tough talking Texan in a 10-gallon hat to run for Congress there.
Arsenal Media was started by Jason Cole, a one time low-level President George W. Bush Administration aide who has lived in Minneapolis for the past decade, according to a public relations firm Cole directed to answer questions on his behalf.
He has a background in politics, having worked at the Office of Drug Control Policy and at the Base Realignment and Closure commission during the mid-2000s. Still, the turn to hawking conservative politicians is a bit of a departure, because he appears to have spent most of the past decade working in sports marketing.
Cole co-founded FanMaker, a loyalty app and fan-tracking system for sports organizations that the company says on its website has been used at games hosted by the Florida State University Seminoles, the NHL’s Nashville Predators and the Houston Dynamo of the MLS. He and his partner in that firm also produced graphics and videos associated with professional sports teams like the Phoenix Suns and New York Jets and colleges like Notre Dame and UCLA, according to reels hosted on YouTube.
Maybe that’s why the political videos Arsenal produces have a distinctly ESPN edge and the same glitchy jump cuts and game-day graphics Cole employed in his former career.
The videos follow two distinct formats: A walk-and-talk with a political figure as he or she spits lines seemingly designed to make liberals tear their hair out over campy hard-charging music, as block letters slickly pasted on the background emphasize the script. The other is a stern heart-to-heart, with the political figure telling it like it is to the camera over intense music.
Cole’s PR firm wouldn’t say why exactly he made the switch from sports to politics, but it has certainly been lucrative. Federal election spending records show the firm took in nearly $900,000 just from candidates for federal office between its founding in June 2020 and December of that same year — and that doesn’t count ads it has produced for local races. They’ve also done work for nonprofits like Turning Point USA and a few Newsmax TV shows, including the one hosted by Benny Johnson, who also happens to be the chief creative officer at Turning Point USA and is the director and screenwriter of some of Arsenal’s most inflammatory ads.
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Johnson is a controversial figure in his own right. Once a journalist for BuzzFeed, Johnson was fired for plagiarism from that organization and reportedly demoted at Independent Journal Review before he pivoted to making viral content for right wing groups and politicians.
Arsenal came out of the gate with an ad for Sean Parnell, who ran against Pennsylvania Rep. Conner Lamb in 2019. That ad, which called the Democratic Party a “Trump Derangement Syndrome support group,” received some notoriety in conservative circles, including a writeup in the Daily Caller. Later that year, the firm joined forces with Article III Project’s Mike Davis (who was the best man at Cole’s wedding) to champion Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination for the Supreme Court.
But it was really the Klacik ad in September 2020 that put the group on the map. Her ad walking through the streets of Baltimore went viral, and Arsenal boasts that it received more than 200 million views online. Klacik ended up losing but the ad led to work with more established politicians, like Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Ken Buck, R-Colo., and a controversial candidate who has come to be well known in his own right since joining Congress: Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C.
The work has also come with some controversy. Last month, the Washington Post profiled a political advertising firm called Olympic Media, a company candidates often hire to promote videos that Arsenal produces. (Olympic has also directly hired Arsenal to produce a video promoting a wine brand dedicated to conservative values owned by Olympic.) Klacik told the newspaper she regretted working with Olympic because it kept about half of the $8 million she raised off of her viral stardom, some of which went to Arsenal.
The issue of political prospecting has become somewhat of a concern for Republican politicians. In another case, Lacy Johnson, the challenger to U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, also worked with Olympic Media and told the Reformer he regrets it because they keep too much of the money raised through their digital marketing techniques.
The Post published details of a candidate’s contract with Arsenal, noting that the firm takes $20,000 up front for an ad spot, then gets paid based on how much money is raised off of the ad.
Sometimes that works to great effect: Joe Collins, who ran an uphill race against Rep. Maxine Waters in Los Angeles, raised more than $10 million and paid nearly $80,000 to Arsenal.
Sometimes, not so much: After an initial payment of $20,000 in September 2020, federal election records show several payments as small as $2.50 from Rodimer’s 2020 Nevada campaign to Arsenal for “fundraising services.”