Here's a riddle: What's the one thing on television that can make you laugh, make you cheer, frighten you, inspire you, confuse you and, in more cases than you'd care to admit, make you want to throw your remote at the screen.
And, no, the answer isn't the Nightly News.
Since the emergence of television more than half a century ago, the political campaign commercial has remained one of the most powerful art forms to invade the broadcast medium. Designed to inform and persuade us, to arouse our passions and call us to action, to entertain us and sometimes even shock us -- and, oh, by the way, to do all that in under 60 seconds -- campaign ads are to American voters what McDonald's commercials are to junk food junkies: they hit us where we live.
And they sometimes change history. More than once over the decades, our elections have been dramatically impacted by that perfectly worded slogan (Ronald Reagan: "It's morning again in America") or that perfectly captured visual (a diminutive Michael Dukakis riding in a very large tank), all of which play on our most primal instincts -- about who will best lead our nation, and who we need to worry about.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson -- running for reelection -- felt compelled to alert voters that his opponent, Barry Goldwater, had warned that he would consider using nuclear weapons in the Vietnam conflict. So the Johnson campaign went for the jugular, airing a one-minute ad that featured an adorable little girl picking the petals off a daisy. As she counts them off, from one to ten, the soundtrack dissolves to a man's voice reciting a reverse countdown -- ten...nine...eight... -- and then, suddenly, the screen is filled with an image of an incinerating explosion, followed by a mushroom cloud.
"We must love each other, or we die," Johnson's voice intones at the end of the ad. So terrified were viewers -- and so overwhelming were their complaints -- that the ad was pulled after only one airing. But Johnson had made his point, which surely played a role in his ultimate victory.
Since then, campaigns have further refined the complex craft of climbing inside our heads, and the results have been increasingly effective. Sometimes the commercials have relied on humor to make their point (an anti-Nixon spot in 1968 featured only the name of Vice Presidential candidate Spiro T. Agnew on the screen, accompanied by peals of uncontrollable laughter); but more commonly, they are soberly designed to deliver a knockout punch -- usually below the belt.
During the 1988 presidential election, the Democratic candidate, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, was staggered by an ad that featured the mug shot of a convicted murderer named Willie Horton, who had been released from prison on a Dukakis-approved weekend furlough program, during which he committed armed robbery and rape. The message? That Dukakis was soft on crime and his judgment was questionable -- and many contend that's why he lost the election. Then in 2004, campaign strategists for George W. Bush, who had not seen military battle, achieved the near-impossible by demeaning the Vietnam service of opponent John Kerry, who had been a war hero. Bush prevailed in the election; and so successful was the so-called Swift Boat ad campaign, that "swiftboating" has become an accepted verb in the popular lexicon -- meaning character assassination.
Looking back, it's been fascinating to track the 60-year evolution of the political ads -- from the chirpy Eisenhower and Kennedy spots, complete with jingle-like campaign songs, to the more sophisticated and harder-hitting commercials we see today. But, in the end, the best ones all have one thing in common: they eventually convinced us who to vote for.
Take a look.
It was during the 1952 election that the first television spots were broadcast promoting presidential candidates. One of those candidates was war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, who wanted his campaign to be entirely upbeat and positive, so he hired Roy Disney (Walt's older brother) to produce an animated TV commercial. While the ad may seem almost comically innocent today, it was very effective at the time. Eisenhower won in a landslide.
Even in 1960, the tone of presidential campaign ads was remarkably positive and upbeat. In this ad, the case for John F. Kennedy is made entirely in the form of a catchy and corny jingle. Not unlike Ike's, Kennedy's happy campaign helped pave his way to the White House.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson's reelection campaign ran a hugely controversial ad depicting a young girl picking petals off a daisy followed by footage of a nuclear blast and a mushroom cloud. The ad was intended to alarm the public about the potential nuclear ambitions of Johnson's rival, Sen. Barry Goldwater; but it ended up terrifying and outraging so many viewers that it was pulled by the campaign after just one airing. But Johnson had made his point.
There was no mincing of words in Hubert Humphrey's 1968 political ad deriding Richard Nixon's choice of Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his running mate. In fact, there were no words at all. Just laughter.
This ad from Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign was officially titled "Prouder, Stronger, Better," but it was the opening the phrase, "It's morning again in America," that effectively stuck in the nation's consciousness. With its calm narration, wholesome imagery and reassuring optimism, the ad proved to be hugely successful and helped Reagan secure a second term in the White House.
In the 1988 race for the presidency, a group informally allied with George H. W. Bush's campaign released one of the most controversial political ads of all time. The ad criticized Dukakis' policy of prison furloughs while he was governor of Massachusetts, but it became notorious for its inflammatory use of a mug shot of convicted murder, Willie Horton, who'd committed an armed robbery and rape while out on weekend furlough. At the time that the ad first aired, Dukakis had a double-digit lead in the polls. Afterwards, Bush won by a landslide.
In addition to the Willie Horton ad, George H. W. Bush's presidential campaign released another spot attacking Michael Dukakis' stance on military issues, using previously shot footage of the diminutive Dukakis riding in a large tank. Unfortunately, for Dukakis, he looked more like child on an amusement park ride than a future Commander in Chief; and the footage fatally damaged is presidential bid.
Swiftboat Veterans For the Truth was a political action group founded in 2004 for the specific purpose of opposing Sen. John Kerry's presidential candidacy. Its highly controversial ad featured 13 men, many of whom claimed to have served in Vietnam with Kerry, and who questioned his honesty, his patriotism and the Medals of Honor that he'd been awarded. In truth, only one of the men had ever served directly with Kerry and the ad was even criticized by Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain, who called it "dishonest and dishonorable." But the ad worked. Kerry lost the election, and the word "swiftboating" -- meaning character assassination -- entered the cultural lexicon.
One of the strangest ads to come out of the 2008 Republican primaries was this one for Herman Cain, featuring his Chief of Staff, Mark Block. While it starts off like a fairly normal campaign spot, things get odd toward the end, as Block stares silently into the camera while smoking. Then, it's Cain's turn to stare into the camera, as he ever-so-slowly breaks into a bizarre, seemingly sinister grin.
They say that politics makes strange bedfellows, but this is one pairing that <em>really</em> seemed strange. During the 2008 Republican primaries, former action star Chuck Norris announced his support for candidate Mike Huckabee. And when the two appeared together in this odd campaign ad, many were left scratching their heads as to whether the spot was real or a parody.
You may not recognize the name, but when the former Democratic Senator from Alaska, Mike Gravel, was a candidate in the 2008 presidential election, he released one of the oddest campaign ads of all time. In it, Gravel stares into the camera for more than a minute before turning and throwing a rock into the water. What does it mean? According to Gravel, it was an artistic metaphor depicting "an ordinary citizen who's trying to make a difference by doing something, and it causes ripples in society." Oh. Okay. Thanks, Mike.
In the 2008 Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton's campaign released an ad that played on the nation's anxiety about national security. The ominous ad posed the question: who would voters want answering the White House telephone at 3:00 A.M. if an international crisis erupted? The images that accompanied that dramatic question -- a darkened house, children sleeping, a ringing phone -- drove the point home, and though Clinton ultimately lost the nomination, it put her rival, Barack Obama, on the defensive.
During Christine O'Donnell's unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 2010, talk show host Bill Maher aired an old clip of O'Donnell appearing on his show, in which she confessed that she had once dabbled in witchcraft. The clip received such widespread news coverage that O'Donnell tried to put an end to the controversy by addressing it directly in her campaign ad. Unfortunately for her, the sweetly nonchalant way she delivered the opening line, "I am not a witch," did less to reassure voters than to crack them up. The ad became an instant viral sensation, spawning countless parodies on YouTube and <em>Saturday Night Live</em>.
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