In 1952, Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson thumbed his nose at the new campaign messaging medium of concise television ad spots, thinking that voters would find them insipid. Dwight Eisenhower crushed him in the general election by an 11-point margin, giving Republicans the White House for the first time in a quarter century.
While Stevenson’s loss was obviously not solely the result of his distaste for ad spots, the 1952 election ushered in an era in which that medium has become an incredibly powerful tool in presidential campaigns.
As the first 2012 campaign videos begin to trickle out — including this epic ad for Rick Perry — we take a look back at some of the most incredible presidential campaign ads in history.
The 1952 presidential election was the first national contest to feature short, televised ad 'spots.' Dwight Eisenhower got fully behind the new medium, filming a series of pithy question and responses, called 'Eisenhower Answers America.'
However, it was this Disney-animated spot of marching supporters, proud elephants, and geeky donkeys, all backed by a song written by legendary composer Irving Berlin, that remains his best known ad from that election.
Perhaps the most famous ad ever released in a presidential campaign, the 'Daisy Girl' spot aired just once before it was pulled due to controversy. The ad, which came in response to Republican candidate Barry Goldwater's statement that he would considering using nuclear weapons in Vietnam, juxtaposed a little girl counting off flower petals with a countdown to a nuclear explosion, implying that Goldwater would recklessly launch a global nuclear war.
Spiro Agnew was such an obscure politician in 1968 that when he was nominated at the Republican convention to be Nixon's running mate, several delegates tauntingly called out, 'Spiro who?' It was Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey who would get the next, though not last, laugh with this minimalist commercial that simply showed Agnew's name while an unseen man hysterically laughed.
Richard Nixon ran heavily against outgoing President Lyndon Johnson's handling of the Vietnam War, promising in this graphic ad to bring the war to an 'honorable end.' Nixon, of course, got the nation deeper into Vietnam, and expanded the war across Southeast Asia as well.
Richard Nixon painted his opponent, George McGovern, as being soft on defence with this ad in which toy soldiers are brushed off screen as a representation of McGovern's proposed defence cuts. Nixon, the ad said, wouldn't 'play games' with defence spending like that.
Seeking to counter challenger Jimmy Carter's edge in Southern states, Gerald Ford released a 30 second testimonial from South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond who alleged that Carter was 'from the South,' but not, 'for the South.' While Thurmond's argument was based on Carter's opposition to South Carolina's right to work laws, the pitch -- coming from the man who tried to singlehandedly filibuster civil rights legislation -- carried strong racial undertones.
Ford then released another testimonial ad, this one from famed actress Pearl Bailey. However, Bailey's pitch is oddly rambling and disjointed, ending with the most lackluster kicker imaginable: 'That's why I hope, that, I don't know, please think about it. It's so important. It really is.'
Better known as the, 'Morning in America' ad, this spot touted improvements to the American economy over the first four years of President Ronald Reagan's tenure. Using a montage loaded with images of wholesome, patriotic Americana and calm narration, the ad suggested that the nation had weathered a terrible storm and could not afford to go back to how things were, 'less than four short years ago.'
'There is a bear in the woods.' That simple line opens up a metaphorical discussion about Soviet Russia's perceived threat to the U.S. in this Reagan spot intended to show that he had the best plan to protect America from bears -- er, Russia.
Down in the polls just shy of election day, Michael Dukakis tried to counter the impression that he was weak on defence by staging a photo-op of himself riding in a tank. His opponent, George H. W. Bush, turned that disastrous event right back around, pairing the comical footage with a devastating critique of Dukakis' defence record.
In 1986, a Massachusetts prison inmate named Willie Horton, who was serving a life sentence for murder, escaped from a weekend furlough program and raped a woman. Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis had previously supported that program as governor, prompting this stark attack ad showing prisoners filing through a revolving prison door.
The ad never mentioned Horton by name, but the connection was hard to miss.
George W. Bush was accused of using subliminal messages in this ad from his 2000 campaign. The commercial criticised rival Al Gore for proposing changes to Medicare, and flashed the word 'bureaucrats' on screen to drive the point home. But for a split second, the word 'rats' appeared alone in large block letters before slipping back into 'bureaucrats.'
Bush's campaign denied the accusations.
George Bush's campaign used a horrible photo opportunity by John Kerry to nail their opponent on two fronts. First, the images of Kerry windsurfing furthered the perception that Kerry was an out of touch elitist. Secondly, and most effectively, the ad ticks off a list of alleged Kerry flip-flops while showing the Massachusetts Senator surfing first one way, then the other.
The ad closes with the tag line, 'John Kerry: Whichever way the wind blows.
The most damaging attack ads of the 2004 election didn't come from either candidate's campaign, but from the conservative-aligned group Swift Boat Veterans For Truth. In this ad, a dozen veterans claimed to have served in the military with Democratic nominee John Kerry, questioning Kerry's integrity and saying that he lied about his service in Vietnam.
It was later revealed that only one of the men in the video actually served with Kerry, but the damage had been done, and the term 'swiftboating' was coined.
Nearly four years later, this ad is still as bizarre as it was when it debuted. Mike Gravel announced his longshot bid for the Democratic nomination in 2008 with this video of himself staring silently into the camera for over a minute, and then tossing a rock into a lake. He later explained that it was a metaphor for creating 'ripples into infinity.'
Gravel then released another bizarre interpretive video, called 'Fire,' that showed a campfire burning for seven minutes, overlaid with his campaign site's URL.
In the heated 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton went after eventual nominee Barack Obama with this ad suggesting that she would be best suited to handle a late-night international crisis. Complete with a ringing phone, ominous narration, and sleeping children, the ad implied that Obama would be unable to keep families safe.
The ads implication that an Obama presidency could endanger children drew comparisons to Lyndon Johnson's controversial 'Daisy Girl' ad.
On the morning of September 15, 2008, John McCain said that the 'fundamentals' of the U.S. financial industry were sound. That same day, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, precipitating the financial meltdown.
Within 24 hours, the Obama campaign had this ad ready to go, contrasting McCain's comment to dire economic forecasts. As a bonus, the ad closes with a shot of McCain hugging George W. Bush.
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