Presidential Campaign Ads

By Sharon Shahid, online managing editor

The year was 1952. Five-star Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was running for president against popular Democrat and Illinois governor, Adlai Stevenson.

In one of the first television ads ever used in a presidential campaign, Eisenhower responded to a statement from a potential voter who claimed "the Democrats are telling me I never had it so good."

"Can that be true when America is billions in debt, prices have doubled, taxes break our backs and we are still fighting in Korea?" Eisenhower replied onscreen. "It's tragic, and it's time for a change."

"Eisenhower Answers America" was a series of 20-second TV commercials where the candidate appeared to participate in Q&A sessions with ordinary voters on everything from the cost of living to the Korean War. But they weren't face-to-face encounters, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, author of "Packaging the Presidency" and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Jamieson, along with media critic and author Bob Garfield, discuss campaign ads through the years in the Newseum-produced video "Every Four Years: Presidential Campaign Ads," which debuts Feb. 16 in the Robert H. and Clarice Smith Big Screen Theater. The video is the companion piece to "Every Four Years: Presidential Campaigns and the Press," a new exhibit that explores how media coverage of presidential campaigns has evolved since 1896.

"Individuals asked Ike questions, but they never saw him," Jamieson said. "That was filmed separately. It's the first use of deceptive editing. That was state-of-the-art-television."

Television ads have played such a key role in modern political campaigns that it's hard to imagine campaigns without them. Through television, candidates have the potential to reach more voters than all the stump speeches and handshakes across America.

Eisenhower utilized the medium to his advantage and won the election by a landslide. Stevenson, who also lost to Eisenhower during the 1956 presidential election, failed to appreciate the power of the medium.

"The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process," he said.

Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign ads are considered among the most effective political ads ever. Opening with the phrase "It's morning again in America," the ad used patriotic imagery to promote the candidate and remind voters of the economic prosperity during Reagan's first term.

"There is no poverty. There is no war. There is no anxiety. It's a Norman Rockwell America," said Jamieson.

One of the most controversial campaign ads ever aired on television was the 1964 "daisy ad." Created by President Lyndon B. Johnson's campaign, the ad attempted to portray Republican challenger Barry Goldwater as an extremist. It began with a young girl counting aloud as she plucked petals from a daisy and ended with an ominous countdown to a nuclear explosion. The ad aired only once, and Goldwater's name was never mentioned, but it signaled a shift to a more negative tone in presidential campaign ads.

"Was it fair? Of course, it wasn't fair," said Garfield. "But it sure did the trick. They figured out what buttons to push. And it was very, very effective."

Johnson was re-elected by a landslide.

Television's broad reach also amplified the impact of negative ads.

"If you didn't have attack ads, you couldn't differentiate among candidates, and you need to differentiate in order to vote," Jamieson said.

In 1988, an ad funded by supporters independent of Vice President George H.W. Bush's campaign, showed a menacing photograph of a black convict named Willie Horton, who had been convicted of raping a woman in Maryland during a weekend furlough from a prison in Massachusetts. Bush's opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who didn't initiate the program, never recovered from the claim that he was soft on crime.

In 2004, a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth used a series of TV ads to question Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry's decorated military record. Though critics claimed the ads were riddled with falsehoods, the group succeeded in raising doubts about Kerry's actions in Vietnam.

"It was so incendiary, so provocative, that the cable news was all over it, and it became the story," Garfield explained.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, the Internet and social media took campaigning into unchartered territory, rewriting the book on the influence and global reach of campaign ads in the digital age.

"Barack Obama built a following and expanded his following, all on the social web. It gets covered on cable news. And they, for free, run it again and again and again. It was one of the greatest pieces of political advertising I've ever seen. From this point forward, it's where the rubber will meet the road," Garfield said.

"Every Four Years" was made possible through generous premier sponsorship from the American Association of University Women.

American Association of University Women

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Contributing sponsorship support is provided by The Washington Examiner.

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