Playlist Errol Morris

High Prices


Museum of the Moving Image
The Living Room Candidate - Transcript
"High Prices," Eisenhower, 1952


MALE NARRATOR: Eisenhower answers America.

WOMAN: You know what things cost today. High prices are just driving me crazy.

EISENHOWER: Yes, my Mamie gets after me about the high cost of living. It's another reason why I say it's time for a change, time to get back to an honest dollar and an honest dollar's worth.


"High Prices," Citizens for Eisenhower, 1952

Maker: Rosser Reeves for Ted Bates and Co.

Video courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

From Museum of the Moving Image, The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952-2012. (accessed June 21, 2024).


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Real People in Political Ads

Voters and elections intrigue me. I earn a living from advertising, and I find political advertising endlessly interesting. What works, what makes people respond? What gives them reason to believe? Or to hope?

Real-people ads have existed since the beginning of film and video. And they have been part of political advertising since the 1950s.

Here is a history of real-people political ads, with my commentary.

About Errol Morris Errol Morris is an Academy-Award-winning documentary filmmaker whose works include The Thin Blue Line, Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, and The Fog of War. His most recent film is Standard Operating Procedure. To see political ads and other works by Errol Morris, visit his website.
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High Prices Endorsement: Woman Sills Family Man on Street - Democrats Lorraine Train Any Questions? Real People:  Rhonda Nix Joe the Magician (Web) Church
An earnest citizen, perhaps a high school honors student, asks the candidate a question. Here, “spontaneous” questions are put to Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson.

To a contemporary audience, this ad may seem somewhat stilted, but no doubt it was effective in its day. The concerns are timeless: a worry about high prices and the ability to feed a family.
Women don’t look like this anymore. The accent is hard to define. Unlike Sarah Palin, this woman would never drop a “g.” Refined and restrained. Devoid of emotion, but nonetheless sincere.
Guess who’s coming to dinner? It’s Jack Kennedy. Can Jackie be far behind?

Here is an ad for Kennedy with real people — the Sills family. It could be unscripted, but it has a stilted quality. The family is sitting down to dinner. The two little girls are seated on the same side of the table — presumably so that they can be photographed. Otherwise, you would get the back of one of their heads. You would never seat a family at a dinner table like that unless someone was coming to dinner with a camera crew. And then JFK shows up in their living room? Was he invited? Did they offer him milk and cookies? The father looks somewhat beleaguered. He may not have enough money to send his kids to college, but he is talking to a man from one of the richest families in America. It is meant to seem spontaneous, off-the-cuff, but the impression left is of the exact opposite.
Then, of course, there are the man-in-the-street interviews, in which various people are stopped on the street and interviewed on a variety of subjects. Six years ago, I directed a “switchers” campaign for Apple — people switching from a PC to a Mac. And then a series of “switchers” ads for a 527 in support of Kerry — Republicans switching to Kerry. I thought I had come up with the idea, but I was wrong. These 1972 ads may be the original “switcher” spots. They are the opposite of what I did years later. Here various Democrats declare their intention to vote for Gerald Ford. The sound is invariably bad and that gives it — along with the bad lighting — the feeling of reality, of authenticity.
This ad is simply moving. Perhaps I respond to it differently than many people because I happen to like Jimmy Carter as a president and as a voice of reason. It is clearly unscripted and heartfelt.
This ad uses real people as wallpaper. In this Reagan spot, we seen real people lined up along the railroad tracks to watch Ronald Reagan’s whistlestop campaign pass through. We see them, but we never hear from them. A voice-over provides Reagan hagiography.
Many of the Swift Boat ads consist of real people interviews. Although 527s were created earlier, suddenly, in 2004 they became a voice for people who might otherwise not be heard. These are considered a low point in political attack advertising, but they are well-produced and, at least on the surface, credible. In 2005, I wrote a post-mortem for the presidential election in the Op-Ed pages of The Times. My argument was simple: Kerry had elided an important element of his biography, his protest against the Vietnam War. At the Democratic convention, the tragedy of Vietnam had been conflated with the triumph of World War II. His war-buddies became “a band of brothers.” The Spielberg-ization of Vietnam. Voters sensed correctly that there was something wrong with this, and as a result the Swift Boat campaign, whether it was a misrepresentation of history or not, gained traction.
I also joined the fray to make political ads. Through much of the summer of 2004, I offered my services to the DNC and to the Kerry Campaign. (I was interested in producing a spot: “When Do Two Rights Make a Wrong?” I believed that Kerry was right to fight for his country and right to protest the war when it became clear that the war made no sense. And I believed that Kerry could have turned this essential part of his biography to his advantage.) My producer, Julie Ahlberg, and I ultimately produced 40-odd spots for a 527. You can see them here.

They consist of real-people interviews shot against a white background. I interviewed Republican voters who were planning to vote for John Kerry. These voters were not pro-Democrat; nor were they anti-Republican; they were anti-George W. Bush. They were upset with this particular Republican candidate. Several people said, “After this election we will go back to voting Republican. This vote is not a break with the party; it’s a break with this man. He lied to us. We don’t trust him.” The voters I interviewed felt betrayed. But they were not voting for John Kerry; they were voting against George Bush.
And then there’s the self-created interview ad that is a product of recent advances in technology. Camcorders that can be taken anywhere. We’ve seen self-reporting from the Iraq War and video diaries created by soldiers. The photographs and videos from Abu Ghraib are part of this phenomenon. Ultimately, video-blogging and self-reporting finds its expression in campaigns like the “Joe the Plumber.” As I understand it, the McCain campaign has posted on its Web pages a request for people to film themselves and discuss why they are Joe the Plumber or Hank the Laminator or Frank the Painter. The intention is to collect these testimonials and then cut them together for a tax revolt television ad.
And here is my recent campaign with real people, done last week.

If you’re not going to put words in people’s mouths, if you’re really listening to what they have to say, you’re going to learn something. Admittedly, the evidence is anecdotal. I haven’t selected these people through some kind of statistical sampling. These people are self-selected. They wrote in and said that they were registered Republicans, Independents or switch-voters who were planning to vote for Obama. People in the middle. And I was interested in talking to them on film about why they were making the switch from voting for a Republican to voting for a Democrat. Was it linked with policy? With the personality of the candidate?

This time — as opposed to 2004 — the content of the interviews has been qualitatively different. The people I interviewed have embraced Obama. They are voting for a candidate, not against a candidate. Lissa Lucas, for example, tells the story of voting for someone for the first time in her life. There is a feeling of hopefulness. There is this optimism, even though the situation in the country is arguably much worse than four years ago. A failing economy. The continuing war in Iraq. A crumbling infrastructure. But there is the core belief that if we pull together, we can save the country.

Of course, the ultimate expression of real people is their votes next week in the presidential election. Hopefully, we will hear from all of them on Nov. 4.