Almost from the moment there was television, there were political ads. They are criticized for cheapening politics by being too negative, tearing down the opposition rather than providing basic information about issues or trying to inspire. Others argue that political ads are too simplistic as they try to cram powerful images and empty slogans into 30- or 60-second spots. But it's impossible to envision a campaign without them. For starters, commercials enable candidates to reach millions of voters unfiltered by the increasingly pervasive news media. There is also the matter of effectiveness. If campaign ads frequently miss the mark, strategists agree that they also can make a difference in shaping public attitudes and in some cases have been key to determining winners and losers.
One of the first TV ad campaigns was "Eisenhower Answers America" in 1952. Primitive by today's standards, it featured archetypal voters asking earnest questions to Ike, speaking upward as if to the heavens. In one, a homemaker says, "You know what things cost today. High prices are just driving me crazy." Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican nominee, immediately appears on screen and answers benevolently, "Yes, my Mamie [his wife] 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."
Such ads helped Ike convince the country that the Democrats, who had controlled the White House since 1933, had been in power too long and were failing the nation. He won overwhelmingly against Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson.
Perhaps the most famous political commercial of all was the "Daisy Ad," broadcast only once—on Sept. 7, 1964. It featured a sweet-looking little girl in a meadow pulling the petals from a daisy as she haltingly counts off each one. Suddenly, a gruff male voice takes over in the countdown of a missile launch, and the girl sees something unsettling in the sky. The scene shifts to the detonation of a nuclear bomb. As a mushroom cloud takes over the screen, President Lyndon Johnson is heard warning, "These are the stakes—to make a world in which all of God's children can live or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die." An announcer concludes: "Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."
At the time, the ad had shock value and reinforced the image that many Americans had of Republican nominee Barry Goldwater as a warmonger. In fact, Johnson and his advisers decided that running the commercial more than once would be overkill. They also knew that the news media would give it extensive coverage, which they did. LBJ won in a landslide.
Menacing. Another classic of negative advertising was the "Willie Horton" commercial run by an independent political group backing George H. W. Bush in 1988. The ad showed a menacing photo of convicted murderer Horton as a narrator described how Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate, had implemented a system of "weekend passes." During one such stint, Horton brutally assaulted a woman and her boyfriend.
The ad was effective because it addressed a strong public concern—violent crime—and portrayed Dukakis as weak on law and order. Critics felt that the ad improperly injected race into the campaign, since Horton was black. Bush strategists pointed out, correctly, that they weren't directly responsible for the ad. But Bush referred to the Horton case frequently on the trail and used the issue indirectly in his own ads by saying the Dukakis administration had opened a "revolving door" in which felons were set free. Bush won easily.
Sometimes a positive approach does the trick, such as with Ronald Reagan's "It's Morning Again in America" series in 1984. The ads, featuring feel-good images of happy families, busy workers, and billowing flags, underscored Reagan's message that his policies during his first term had strengthened the economy, improved national security, and restored America's confidence from the setbacks of the Carter administration. "Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?" an announcer asked. Reagan demolished his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale, that fall.