The 10 Most Notorious Election Campaign Ads Of All Time
Campaign season is in full swing and that means our steady stream of Taco Bell and Geico commercials have temporarily been displaced by political ads. Theory is that these 60-second or less candidate appeals don’t have the impact they used to, but that, like the issues of our day, is up for debate. The decades have seen their fair share of tactical political ads designed by the sharpest minds to get their boss our vote. Here we present 10 of the most notorious election campaign ads of all time.
I Like Ike (1952)
It was already a great slogan. Perhaps the greatest in presidential campaign history. As a five-star general, Dwight D. Eisenhower possessed a certain pedigree that his Democratic rival Adlai Stevenson could not compete with. But it was not his tough-as-nails persona that is credited with leading Ike to victory. It is a joyful animated ad produced by Disney with a jingle composed by virtuoso Irving Berlin. In it, a beaming Uncle Sam leads a parade of folks of all stripes and a smiling elephant as they wave their Ike flags and remind the audience how everybody likes him. The first political ad ever to air on television, its upbeat, positive message may not have survived through the decades, but its reputation sure has.
The ad only ran once, and was pulled from rotation because of the response to its controversial nature. But newscasts and talk shows picked up on it and “Daisy” became a national discussion. Many said it helped Lyndon Johnson defeat his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater. Pairing a horrific nuclear blast with a little girl in an idyllic meadow as she pulls petals from a daisy were such powerful images that its impact is still discussed over 50 years later.
Morning in America (1984)
Though he won in a landslide, Ronald Reagan was not assured re-election in 1984. It was a hard fought contest between him and former Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale. The ad often credited with taking him to victory was not a knuckle-barring attack on his opponent, but a sunny, optimistic celebration of daily American life called “Prouder, Stronger, Better.” Although, it is widely remembered as “Morning In America.” The ad shows a joyous United States citizenry and reminds audiences how much the improved economy has brightened America’s future. Its simplicity and positivity is no doubt effective, though it’s worth noting that out of all the smiling faces featured in the ad, there’s not one person of color in the bunch.
Willie Horton (1988)
Produced by Roger Ailes, father of FoxNews and alleged sexual harassment enthusiast, this is one of the most effective negative ads in the history of presidential campaigns. On its face, it is simple, touting Vice President George H.W. Bush’s tough-on-crime support. It then juxtaposes that with his opponent Michael Dukakis. It’s revealed that the then Governor of Massachusetts supported a program that gave weekend passes to criminals. Then we see the photo of African-American Willie Horton, a beneficiary or that program, who used his time away from prison to rape and murder. A very shrewd, calculated twist to the narrative particularly bestowing a nickname upon the convict instead of using his real, less sinister name, William. The ad scared the daylights out of voters and Bush sailed to victory in 1988.
Tank Ride (1988)
Not only was Dukakis accused of being soft on crime during his 1988 campaign against Vice President Bush, but soft on national security as well. In an effort to toughen up his image, his advisers set up a photo op where he would cruise around in a tank. And wear a cumbersome helmet. Problem solved? Not exactly. The opposition got a hold of this ridiculous looking footage and whipped up an attack ad that portrayed him as a fool while listing all the manly defense projects he was on record opposing. Some even suggested that Snoopy cast a stronger image atop his doghouse fighting the Red Baron in WWII than Dukakis did in that tank. His prospects for becoming the 41st President of the United States? Well, they tanked, too.
Any Questions (2004)
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was not an arm of the Republican Party, but a Super PAC bent on seeing Senator John Kerry defeated in his campaign against President George W. Bust after the latter’s first term in office. The question many on the Right pondered was how does Bush go up against a decorated war hero when Bush was still vulnerable to his reputed draft dodging? The answer was to discredit Kerry with a false tale about how the heroic encounter that earned the young soldier a Purple Heart in Vietnam was actually an act of betrayal against his troop. Even though that tale and the ad that birthed it was a lie, its message permeated inside the electorate, and Kerry’s service drew skepticism. Kerry lost that election and the term “swiftboating” has come to mean a dishonest smear against a candidate.
What a way to kick a man while he’s down. If you think George W. Bush was a badass invading Iraq on the basis of a faulty premise, here he goes in for the kill on his opponent John Kerry, already smarting from the swift-boat attack. As the richest man in Congress–thanks to a super sugar mama of a wife–Kerry had to very carefully portray himself as a regular guy. But once the Republican ad machine got hold of a photograph of the senator windsurfing, combined it with some lighthearted classical music and a tally of his flip-flops, said wind was taken right out of his sails. Bush was a very unpopular President at the time thanks to two unpopular wars, but his re-election team proved indomitable. Through actions including these crafty campaign ads, they painted Kerry in ways he could never recover from.
Who Hasn’t (2006)
Immediately branded as racist when it came out, this ad is really just a bunch of actors portraying goofy voters accusing Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford, Jr. of taking a variety of liberal and anti-family value positions. While the guy accusing Ford of taking money from porn producers–which the campaign said happened unknowingly and the donation was summarily returned–it is the white woman revealing she partied with the African-American politician at the Playboy Mansion that caused most of the uproar. Apparently, the black man preying on white women was still a concern with a portion of the Volunteer state in 2006. The fact that it usually ranks in the bottom 10 educational rankings makes it not too hard to figure out why. Critics said such innuendo was a dog whistle to bigoted voters, and whether that was true or not, the white guy won in the end.
3 a.m. (2008)
It used to be the only thing we needed to worry us about the 3 AM hour was Rob Thomas’ unique style of crooning. All that changed in 2008 when Hillary Clinton was battling it out with newbie senator Barack Obama to become the Democratic Presidential nominee. It’s dark, the kids are sleeping somewhere in suburbia, and the darn phone keeps ringing. The point the future Secretary of State was trying to make was that her years of experience in Washington D.C. and around the world made her more qualified that this upstart from Illinois. Ultimately, as we know, voters didn’t buy it, but the premise of the ad and the title itself left an incredible imprint in future campaign conversations.
Role Models (2016)
How do you convey how your opponent’s tendency to yearn for 1) dissent being met with violence 2) telling people off with profanity 3) bragging that you are so popular you could literally get away with murder 4) blaming a female moderator’s tough questions on menstruation, and 5) delighting in mocking and mimicking a reporter’s disability in front of thousands of people might be a bad influence on our children? That was the challenge the Hillary Clinton campaign confronted this year. Their solution was an easy one. They simply replayed footage of rival Donald J. Trump making these inflammatory statements and intercut them with images of young kids simply watching them delivered on their television sets. If you think those sentiments are ugly, then you probably think their speaker is ugly, too. And that’s the whole point.