The “Eisenhower Answers America” ads, conceived and created by Madison Avenue advertising executive Rosser Reeves of Ted Bates and Company, were as bold in conception as they were simple in execution. The campaign created forty “spot ads,” each consisting of a question from an ordinary voter and a response from the candidate. The answers were filmed first, in a midtown Manhattan studio, with General Eisenhower reading off of cue cards. The questions were filmed later, read by tourists who were scouted in front of Radio City Music Hall. Eisenhower is filmed in the elevated position; the questioners all look up at him, establishing a personal connection but also keeping him in the position of the hero. The ads stick to three key points: high prices, the war in Korea, and gridlock in Washington. Yet the spots are clearly selling more than just the answers to these problems; they are selling Eisenhower’s personality. The campaign spent nearly two million dollars to saturate the airwaves with these ads in twelve key states during a three-week period in October. Adlai Stevenson’s campaign manager George Ball decried the effort to sell Eisenhower in the same manner as “soap, ammoniated toothpaste, hair tonic, or bubble gum.” Stevenson was the first—and last—candidate to refuse to appear in TV ads.
The most famous of all campaign commercials, known as the “Daisy Girl” ad, ran only once as a paid advertisement, during an NBC broadcast of Monday Night at the Movies on September 7, 1964. Without any explanatory words, the ad uses a simple and powerful cinematic device, juxtaposing a scene of a little girl happily picking petals off of a flower (actually a black-eyed Susan), and an ominous countdown to a nuclear explosion. The ad was created by the innovative agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, known for its conceptual, minimal, and modern approach to advertising. The memorable soundtrack was created by Tony Schwartz, an advertising pioneer famous for his work with sound, including anthropological recordings of audio from cultures around the world. The frightening ad was instantly perceived as a portrayal of Barry Goldwater as an extremist. In fact, the Republican National Committee spelled this out by saying, “This ad implies that Senator Goldwater is a reckless man and Lyndon Johnson is a careful man.” This was precisely the intent; in a memo to President Johnson on September 13, Bill Moyers wrote, “The idea was not to let him get away with building a moderate image and to put him on the defensive before the campaign is old.” The ad was replayed in its entirety on ABC’s and CBS’s nightly news shows, amplifying its impact.
Spiro Agnew was unknown on the national stage when Richard Nixon selected him as his running mate in 1968. Just six years earlier, Agnew won his first political office, as Baltimore County supervisor. He became the governor of Maryland in 1966. During a floor fight over his nomination at the Republican convention, some delegates ridiculed him, yelling “Spiro Who?” This ad also makes fun of Agnew, but suggests that his election would be no laughing matter. The ad was created by Tony Schwartz, best known for his work on the “Daisy Girl” commercial for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Schwartz, who created more than 20,000 radio and TV commercials, was also a sound recordist and archivist, known as “The Wizard of Sound.” In the memorable soundtrack to this ad, the uncontrollable laughter at the notion of Agnew as vice president turns into a painful cough, which serves as witty punctuation. This is one of the rare examples of humor in a presidential campaign ad.
This innovative and controversial ad for Richard Nixon ran eight days before the election. It was part of a series of powerful collage ads created from still photographs, music, and minimal narration by documentary filmmaker Eugene Jones. In "Convention," images of Vietnam, race riots, and poverty, intercut with a smiling Humphrey at the Democratic convention, are accompanied by "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight." The song cleverly references both the riots at the convention and the domestic and international turmoil of the time. The ad ran as a paid spot on NBC’s comedy show Laugh-In. Sharing the show’s kinetic and irreverent style, it confused some viewers, who assumed it was part of the progam. Hundreds of others called the network to protest its bad taste. The Nixon campaign agreed to pull the ad, but the following night, The Huntley-Brinkley Report gave it free airtime by covering the controversy. As a result of his poor showing in the 1960 presidential debates, Richard Nixon’s appearances on television were carefully controlled in 1968. He refused to debate Humphrey, and "the one minute spot commercials presented Nixon’s views on his principal campaign themes—Vietnam, law and order, race, and the economy," said Leonard Garment, one of his campaign managers.
The attack ad “McGovern Defense,” was released by the Nixon campaign under the banner of the quasi-independent group “Democrats for Nixon.” All of Nixon’s advertising was overseen by his aide H.R. Haldeman, a former advertising executive with J. Walter Thompson. This ad is one of the most effective incarnations of a favorite Republican theme; that the Republicans represent military strength and that Democrats cannot be trusted as commander in chief, partly because they would cut defense spending. By using plastic toys when describing McGovern’s plans and then cutting to real footage of President Nixon on a battleship, the ad implies that only Nixon can be taken seriously as commander in chief. The other key concept expressed by the ad is the notion that the Democratic candidate is dangerously liberal. The ad effectively uses the words of McGovern’s Democratic rival Hubert Humphrey to suggest that McGovern is so far out of the mainstream that even voters from his own party are supporting Nixon. This ad strategy was a response to a demographic shift in the electorate, with working-class voters moving towards the Republican Party. The effectiveness of the ad is proven by the fact that it was virtually remade in two subsequent campaigns, as “Tank Ride” for George H.W. Bush in 1988, and “Weapons Florida” for George W. Bush in 2004.
It is traditional for candidates to begin their advertising campaigns with biographical ads. These positive commercials frame their life stories in the best possible light, attempting to link their personal histories to their political goals. The focus on personality was especially important in the 1976 election, which took place less than two years after the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Many voters were cynical about their government, and character became a more significant factor than individual issues. Political historian Michael Barone said that “the 1976 election is probably unique in American history as one in which the focus of attention was not on the performance of the incumbent President but rather on the character of the challenger.” This five-minute biographical ad for Governor Jimmy Carter accomplishes a lot: it establishes Carter as a fresh-faced outsider with roots in small-town America and experience as a Naval officer, and as a peanut farmer who made working people rather than special interests his priority as Governor of Georgia. From its modest opening, with the candidate seen in a denim work shirt on a farm, to its uplifting ending, where Carter is shown immediately after a shot of Mount Rushmore, the ad creates an emotionally compelling case for Carter as the candidate who can create a “new era” in America.
In campaign ads, spouses usually play a benign role. They are there to humanize the candidate and to add some warmth. The 1980 ad “Nancy Reagan” is a striking exception. As the ad begins, she fervently refutes the charges that President Carter has made against “my husband,” stating that he is not a warmonger. She then goes on the attack, asking that Carter “explain to me” why inflation is so high, and why he has a “vacillating, weak” foreign policy. Although this is an attack ad, it is presented as an act of spousal defense. Reagan had a reputation as a staunch conservative, and the campaign felt the need to project a soft, safe image of the candidate so that voters would feel comfortable with him. The attacks on Carter are left to surrogates, including Nancy Reagan, Gerald Ford, William Safire, and—in another memorable ad using footage from the bitter Democratic primary battle—Ted Kennedy.
President Reagan's evocative re-election campaign ads were created by the Tuesday Team, an all-star group of advertising executives including Hal Riney, Philip Dusenberry, and Jerry Della Femina. The Reagan campaign made it clear to the team that they wanted something more effective and memorable than the straightforward "hard sell" ads of the 1980 campaign. The result was an inspiring series of picturesque ads collectively known as "Morning in America." With brightly lit montages of idyllic scenes of suburban life and swelling music, the ads evoked a Norman Rockwell vision of the country, suggesting that President Reagan had restored American optimism. By asking, “Do we really want to go back to where we were four short years ago?" the ads also gently attacked the Democratic candidate, former Vice President Walter Mondale, by linking him to the Jimmy Carter presidency. The voice of Hal Riney, who narrates the ad, is familiar from many commercials, for cars, insurance companies, and other products. According to Dusenberry, when Reagan was introduced to the Tuesday Team, he said, "I understand you guys are selling soap. I thought you'd like to see the bar." The "Morning in America" ads were run in heavy saturation early in the year, during Reagan's uncontested primary run, to set the tone for the rest of the campaign.
The familiar, soothing, and avuncular voice narrating this classic ad belongs to advertising executive Hal Riney, who created this spot, and most of the optimistic “Morning in America” ads for Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign. Using symbolism, the ad features a large grizzly bear lumbering through the woods. “Some say the bear is tame, others say it’s vicious and dangerous.” The bear represents a threat that could be real or imagined. While no mention is made of the Cold War, it becomes clear at the end of the ad that the bear represents the Soviet Union and the lone hunter represents the United States. With a soft, reassuring voice, the ad evokes fear of our enemies and makes a commonsense appeal for peace through strength. When the ad was tested for focus groups, many viewers were unsure about what the bear represented, thinking that it had something to do with the environment or gun control. Yet with its simple, ominous imagery, and suspenseful music combined with the subtle sound of a heartbeat, this is one of the most memorable of all campaign ads. It was the inspiration for the 2004 George Bush ad “Wolves,” created by Mark McKinnon.
The inaccurate yet devastating ad “Tank Ride” not only helped guarantee Governor Michael Dukakis’s defeat, it also created a lasting impression. In the fall of 2008, the first three images of Dukakis returned from a Google Search of his name are from the unfortunate photo opportunity that was staged by the Dukakis campaign on September 13, 1988, to counter the impression that the Democratic candidate was weak on defense. While many of the claims made in the narration and scrolling text are erroneous or misleading, the image of Dukakis smiling, in an oversized helmet, did not have the intended effect. The ad was produced by Greg Stevens, whose company Stevens, Reed, Curcio and Potholm created the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads in 2004. The Dukakis campaign directly countered “Tank Ride” with the ad “Counterpunch.” When the Dukakis response ad appeared on the news, cultural historian Kiku Adatto described it as “a quintessentially modernist image of artifice upon artifice: television news covering a Dukakis commercial containing a Bush commercial containing a Dukakis media event.” As modern as this spectacle may have been, the attack ad “Tank Ride” was an expression of an old trope; the notion that the Democratic candidate cannot be trusted as commander in chief.
This stark and unsettling ad from the Bush campaign doesn't mention the notorious escaped convict William Horton by name. (Although he went by William, the Bush campaign referred to him by the less respectable name “Willie”). However, with its release just a few weeks after the independently financed ad "Willie Horton" had generated controversy and national press coverage, the connection was clear. Under the direction of campaign manager Roger Ailes, Dukakis was linked with the case of the African American felon who fled Massachusetts during a weekend furlough and and attacked a young white couple in Maryland. Focus groups conducted in Paramus, New Jersey, in May showed a strong emotional reaction to the failed furlough system, and Bush decided to make this a key issue in the campaign, attacking Dukakis in a speech as "a tax-raising liberal who let murderers out of jail." Because of their strong imagery and underlying racial message, "Willie Horton" and "Revolving Door" received substantial coverage on TV news programs during the final month of the campaign. “I realized I started a trend,” said Ailes. “Now guys are out there trying to produce commercials for the evening news.” The creator of the "Willie Horton" ad, Floyd Brown, also made attack ads against John Kerry in 2004.
The biographical film “The Man from Hope,” shown at the Democratic convention in 1992, took great advantage of two things: that Bill Clinton, the governor of Arkansas, was indeed born and raised in a town called Hope; and that a filmed record exists of the June 1963 Boys Nation leadership event at the White House, during which the young Bill Clinton met and shook hands with President John Kennedy. “Journey” is an edited version of the convention film, and one of the most compelling biographical ads ever made. In his book The Political Brain, Drew Westen summarizes the narrative arc of the ad: “Through hard work, caring, and determination, I know what it’s like to live the American dream. In my home state, I’ve done everything possible to help others realize that dream. And as your president, I’ll do everything I can to help people all over this country realize their dreams like I’ve done in Arkansas.” The film was made by Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, television producers (Designing Women) who were good friends of the Clintons. Focus groups had shown that many voters perceived Clinton as an elitist career politician. The commercial emphasizes work, and carefully avoids mentioning the name of the Ivy League law school that Clinton attended—Yale.
"Surgeon" is an extremely effective example of the combination positive-negative ad that is so common today. Often, these ads, which support one candidate and then attack the other, use bright, colorful images for the positive message and murky, black-and-white images for the attack. The commercial uses many of the techniques on display throughout this website: we are immediately drawn into the ad emotionally by its uplifting shots of children talking about their plans for the future; these scenes are juxtaposed with scary footage of Bob Dole threatening to eliminate the Department of Education. The ad then uses guilt by association, linking Dole to the unpopular Newt Gingrich; and it uses footage of Clinton at the White House to take advantage of his position as the incumbent. It also offers facts and figures detailing President Clinton’s accomplishments, to add substance to the ad’s emotional impact.
"Really MD," which first aired on September 1, 2000, was the first attack ad of the general election campaign for George W. Bush. With the economy in good shape, and no major domestic or international problems, Bush was attempting to maintain his image as a genial, sincere person. In late August, Bush blocked an attack ad challenging Al Gore's trustworthiness. However, the strategy changed because Gore was enjoying a post-convention bounce. The ad team, led by Alex Castellanos, decided to raise questions about Gore's trustworthiness and integrity. The ad "Really" makes the attack with humor, and with the softening touch of using a female narrator. The woman is commenting sarcastically about an Al Gore ad that is playing on a small television set. As Governor Bush's communications director Karen Hughes explained, "They tried to insulate Bush from the harshness of the message. They put the words in the mouth of an anonymous narrator. They used a woman's voice. They phrased the criticism in a humorous way." Relatively mild by the standards of the 2004 and 2008 elections, this ad was viewed by the press as particularly harsh, with headlines such as "RNC Gets Really Nasty," "Bush Approves New Attack Ad Mocking Gore," and "Bush Torpedoes Himself."
The most entertaining and effective ad of the 2004 campaign was Mark McKinnon’s spot “Windsurfing,” which used humor, classical music, and footage from a disastrously ill-conceived photo opportunity to hammer home the single most consistent assertion of the Bush campaign: that John Kerry was a “flip-flopper” who followed the political winds and switched positions frequently. During the week of the Republican convention in August, Kerry took a vacation in Nantucket, and invited the press to photograph him windsurfing. There were two big problems here for Kerry. First, the sport of windsurfing fed into the perception among many voters that Kerry was an East Coast elitist. Secondly, as McKinnon realized immediately when he saw the news footage of Kerry, windsurfing could be used as a perfect visual metaphor, literalizing the flip-flop charge, which is enhanced in the ad by the flipping of the image. The idea behind the “flip-flop” charge was to provide a contrast to Bush, who was portrayed by the campaign as a solid, steadfast leader who sticks firmly to his beliefs. Flip-flop ads are a common genre, because of how easy it is to juxtapose contradictory statements by a candidate. But no flip-flop ad makes the charge with such humor and grace. The networks took delight in replaying the ad frequently on the evening news.
On September 15, 2008, the financial services firm Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, igniting the financial crisis that dominated the fall season. That morning, John McCain made remarks including the comment “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.” The Obama campaigned seized the opportunity, making an ad that replayed McCain’s remarks in a way that makes him look old and out of touch. The Obama ad was aired within 24 hours of McCain’s remarks, creating a contrast between the speed and assertiveness of the Obama campaign and the unsteady nature of McCain’s remarks. This is a classic “backfire” ad, in which a candidate’s remarks are used against them. The ad also reminds us that campaigns can be strongly effected by breaking news events, which can offer an idea of how a candidate can react to a crisis. McCain had briefly pulled even in national polls in the days following the Republican convention; Obama regained the lead for good after the economic crisis.