In the months leading up to the 1952 presidential election, the campaigns were having a vigorous debate—about television. President Harry Truman had declined to run for another term, and the contest was shaping up between Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson for the Democrats and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower for the Republicans. At this point in history, around 35 percent of Americans had a television set in their home, enough to finally take TV seriously as a medium. But which campaign would go first? Both nominees initially resisted, thinking TV ads beneath the office. While Eisenhower had qualms, his opponent Stevenson was defiant and dismissive: “This isn’t a soap opera, this isn’t Ivory soap versus Palmolive.” For those same lofty reasons, the dominant TV networks at the time, NBC and CBS, tried to convince the campaigns not to buy television time.
That, of course, won’t be an issue during the 2020 election. More than $6,500,000,000—yes, that’s billions—are projected to be spent on advertising for the upcoming race between President Donald Trump and presumptive nominee Joe Biden. With COVID-19 changing the landscape, the actual spend is anyone’s guess, but there is one certainty: Just as political TV ads have historically appealed to voter emotions, the 2020 ads will pull your heart strings in one way or the other—doubling down on fear and anger or inspirationally nudging you towards hope and pride.
All of these themes were going to be explored in I Approve This Message, an exhibition about the emotional impact of political advertising in a landscape altered by the internet that was to open at the New-York Historical Society this September. The COVID-19 lockdown halted those plans, but we want to share a few of the exhibition’s themes, particularly as we barrel towards election day on Nov. 3.
In this first of three posts, we’re going to look at some of the most memorable TV campaign spots of years past and the emotions they inspire. Studies show that we as viewers feel first and think later. Once a choice is made, facts rarely change our minds, even for the most educated among us. So the most memorable campaigns aim for our hearts and run the gamut from stirring to downright dirty, as seen in the classic TV ads below. (You can also watch a video compilation of the 9 ads here.)
Dwight D. Eisenhower (R) vs. Adlai Stevenson II (D)
“I Like Ike”
Eisenhower’s campaign took the first on-air ad leap and soon came up with this upbeat classic. With music by Irving Berlin, “I Like Ike” was produced by Walt Disney’s brother Roy at the Disney Studios and features a feel-good jingle, reminiscent of the memorable ads heard on soap operas—ironic, given both candidates’ desire not to be sold like products. Deceptively simple and totally charming, the spot uses strategically sophisticated words and images, like an aloof Stevenson riding a donkey in the wrong direction. Eisenhower was a genuine World War II hero and a Roper Poll named him the “most admired of all living Americans,” so there is some question as to whether he needed to advertise at all. Regardless, this election is the beginning of TV campaign advertising, ushering in the TV ad wars to win the hearts and minds of Americans. (Eisenhower Administration: 1953-1961)
John F. Kennedy (D) vs. Richard Milhous Nixon (R)
“Kennedy for Me”
Having served in the U.S. House and Senate, Kennedy campaigned against the far better-known Vice President Nixon, who lacked the good looks and personal appeal that Kennedy had in abundance. Kennedy’s negatives were his youth (age 43), Catholicism (still seen as a major stumbling block in midcentury America), and inexperience during a nasty Cold War with the Soviet Union. Like Ike, Kennedy used a laundry-soap-style ad jingle. The resulting spot is short on facts, but the lyrics are aspirational, underlining the importance of voting for change and a slogan that points forward—a candidate for a new decade, for you and for me. (Kennedy Administration: 1961-1963)
Lyndon B. Johnson (D) vs. Barry Goldwater (R)
Remember the movies Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe, and Seven Days in May? They were all released during 1964. The Cuban Missile Crisis had occurred only two years earlier, and the country was obsessed with the prospect of nuclear war. Democrats painted Goldwater as imprudent, dangerous, and extreme. Johnson’s emotionally chilling TV spot “Daisy” featured a young girl counting daisy petals, an ominous countdown, and a nuclear blast as Johnson warns: “We must either love each other or we must die.” Republicans denounced it for being over-the-top and fearmongering, and the spot ran only once before getting pulled from the air. (It has been reported that was the plan all along and a calculated move by the Johnson campaign.) The resulting non-stop news coverage of the controversy was the equivalent of going viral today. (Johnson Administration: 1963-1969)
Richard Milhous Nixon (R) vs. Hubert Humphrey (D) vs. George Wallace (American Independent)
The year 1968 was an extremely tumultuous one in the United States and around the world. The Vietnam War body count was soaring and a disheartened President Johnson had withdrawn from the race. Americans witnessed two shocking assassinations within two months of each other: Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis followed by presidential front-runner Senator Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles. And at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, there were violent clashes between anti-war protestors and the police that TV viewers watched at home. With Nixon’s emphasis on law and order, it was no surprise that this atmospherically dark ad would heighten fears with images of violence, guns, drugs, and police line-ups. Tension-raising music and a powerful script narrated by Nixon engaged the senses. He pledged, “The wave of crime is not going to be the wave of the future of America.” The tagline: “This time vote like your whole world depended on it.” (Nixon Administration: 1969-1974)
Ronald Reagan (R) vs. Walter Mondale (D)
“It’s Morning Again in America”
Though its actual title is “Prouder, Stronger, Better,” this ad is best known by its opening line: “It’s Morning Again in America.” It’s a feel-good ad from start to finish, accompanied by an inspiring poetic voiceover, sweeping orchestral music, dreamy images of an idealized, homogeneous America following one after the other, and ending with the American flag. Reagan and wife Nancy gathered a team of the best professionals in the commercial ad business—including the future head of Fox News, Roger Ailes as media consultant—who took the moniker “The Tuesday Team.” The result was one of the most emotionally effective political ads ever made. (Reagan Administration: 1981-1989)
George Herbert Walker Bush (R) vs. Michael Dukakis (D)
This ad built on an earlier one known as “Willie Horton,” a racist recounting of the story of a black convict in Massachusetts whose attack on a white couple during a weekend furlough from prison involved a knifing and rape. “Revolving Door” used those same race-based fears—without ever mentioning Horton’s name—to raise concerns about Massachusetts Governor Dukakis’s prison policies. The truth was much more complicated: During the late 1980s, all 50 states had furlough programs. Still, the ad succeeded in giving the impression that Dukakis was an out-of-touch, soft-on-crime liberal who couldn’t be trusted to keep America safe. (H.W. Bush Administration: 1989-1983)
William Jefferson Clinton (D) vs. George H.W. Bush (R) vs. Ross Perot (Reform Party)
Reaffirming the American dream, this shorter version of the biographical video, “The Man from Hope,” shown at the Democratic National Convention introduces Americans to Arkansas’ Governor Clinton. The ad, narrated by Clinton, describes a likeable, hard-working guy who, inspired by John F. Kennedy, takes us on his journey from his small Arkansas hometown named Hope to a life of public service. Made by Clinton’s TV producer friends, it has been considered one of the most successful biographical introductions of a presidential nominee. (Clinton administration: 1993-2001)
George W. Bush (R) vs. John Kerry (D)
The Iraq War was raging, the country was still recovering from 9/11, and the economy was stumbling. The country wanted a steadfast leader. This Bush ad used video footage of Kerry windsurfing off the coast of Nantucket to portray him as an unreliable “flip-flopper” and an out-of-touch East Coast liberal elitist. The beats of the familiar “Blue Danube” waltz emphasize every “flip and flop” of the sail in the wind. This came on the heels of the controversial anti-Kerry “swift boat” ads that undermined the Senator’s campaign focus on his Vietnam War heroism. The takeaway: Kerry wasn’t dependable. 2004 is also a year when the internet began to make a serious difference. If Kerry had been watching the burgeoning political blogosphere more closely, he might have noted the damage from both ads and decided to fight back sooner. (W. Bush administration: 2001-2009)
Barack Obama (D) vs. John McCain (R)
“Yes We Can”
While not a traditional TV commercial, “Yes We Can”—a music video launched online—has to be included on this list. Produced by Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am and directed by Jesse Dylan, son of Bob Dylan, it was among the first video spots to demonstrate the massive impact of the internet through the audience it gained: an astounding 26-plus million viewers on YouTube for a 4:30 minute “ad.” The video and song takes Obama’s own words from a primary concession speech he gave after losing to Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and puts it to music with more than 30 well-known performers singing the lyrics—everyone from Common to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Scarlett Johansson. Produced independent of the Obama campaign, it led to an online fundraising boom and created a new wave of momentum for the young senator from Illinois. (Obama Administration: 2009-2017)
COMING UP NEXT…
Television and its political advertising continue to play an essential role in every presidential campaign—even today, as it competes and is paired with the even more disruptive and micro-targeted technologies of the internet.
The next two posts will touch on those topics: where “I approve this message” came from; what it really promises; the regulations that rule it, but not the internet; and the manipulative techniques that impact your emotions, but are likely to be under your radar when you engage online.
Curated and written by Harriett Levin Balkind, Founder of nonpartisan HonestAds.org and creator and guest curator of the I APPROVE THIS MESSAGE: Decoding Political Ads exhibition hosted by the Toledo Museum of Art, 2016
“The Spot, The Rise of Political Advertising on Television,” Third Edition, Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates, pg 58, 125
A 1952 Roper Poll, “Packaging the Presidency, A History and Criticism of Presidential Campaign Advertising,” Kathleen Hall Jamison, pg 41, Oxford University Press, 1984
Top image: President John F. Kennedy and President Dwight D. Eisenhower meet at Camp David in 1961 (U.S. National Archives)
Generous support for exhibitions that address the cornerstones of citizenship and American democracy provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and HISTORY.
Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Seymour Neuman Endowed Fund, and New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.