The first presidential TV ad premiered in 1952 when ad man Rosser Reeves created commercials for Dwight D. Eisenhower. One Disney animated spot (top left) included a song with the theme "Everybody likes Ike." Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson had little interest in helping ad executives shape his image. Yet in one musical spot promoting his candidacy, a woman sings that Stevenson "will lead us till the peace is won." The 1956 race, which again pitted Eisenhower against Stevenson, featured the first negative ad. Stevenson's running mate, Estes Kefauver (left) highlighted promises he claimed Gen. Eisenhower did not keep.
By 1960, 90 percent of American households had TV sets, and Americans watched an average of two hours of television a day. Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy's camp used the medium to introduce his young, attractive family to viewers. It also crafted a devastating ad against Republican candidate Richard Nixon. The spot featured President Dwight Eisenhower (below) at a press conference unable to recall a single idea of veep Nixon's he adopted. Nixon, who preferred campaigning in person, often defended his leadership role in his spots.
The 1964 race between Democrat Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater got ugly. Johnson's "Daisy" spot (above), considered one of the best political spots ever made, suggested Goldwater was capable of taking the country to nuclear war. Another pro-Johnson spot, from Doyle Dane Bernbach, featured a saw cutting off the Eastern Seaboard. It highlighted comments Goldwater made that the country would be better off without that section of the U.S. It took Goldwater a while to fight back. When he did, he said the highest Democratic echelons were involved in scandals (right).
Dubbed the first high-tech campaign due to sound and video recording advances, production costs in 1968 skyrocketed. It was difficult for the Democrats to devise a tight strategy for Hubert Humphrey because he switched agencies six times. In one ad (left), Humphrey took credit for helping to halt the arms race as LBJ's vice president. Dramatic music played a significant role in Republican candidate Richard Nixon's spots. He appealed to the "forgotten Americans," the soldiers, nonshouters, nondemonstrators and taxpaying workers he promised to protect.
President Richard Nixon portrayed his Democratic rival, George McGovern (below) as a radical left-winger out of touch with the views of mainstream America. Because he was well-known and looked sinister on camera, Nixon did not appear in many commercials. Instead, the spot showed workers (top left) who would foot the cost of a welfare bill Sen. McGovern proposed. McGovern avoided attack ads, preferring unscripted, casual discussions with voters.
Peanut farmer and Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter (bottom right) was portrayed as a smart, hardworking nonlawyer Americans should put in the White House. With the Watergate scandal looming over the election, both Carter and rival Gerald Ford stressed their personal integrity. One pro-Ford spot, for instance, featured a dad telling his son that if he were to grow up to be president, he would like him to be like Ford.
Moving beyond his farming roots, President Carter used footage from notable achievements, like the Camp David Accord, in a 1980 spot. Republican rival Ronald Reagan's ads attempted to appeal to Americans' best hopes, not their worst fears. In one Democrats for Reagan spot, Sen. Ted Kennedy (below) is shown blasting Carter's performance.
The 1984 election sparked the formation of special ad teams. President Ronald Reagan's "Tuesday Team" created memorable spots like "Morning in America" (top left) that presented the country as better and stronger than it was four years ago. It also created the bear in the woods spot, which stressed that Reagan was prepared for peace. Democrat Walter Mondale attacked Reagan's record in ads that often featured testimonials of what he would do if elected president.
The 1988 race between Vice President George Bush and Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis started kind and gentle—and ended on a nasty note. The Bush team seized upon an initiative Dukakis instituted in Massachusetts that allowed inmates to take weekend furloughs (above). The spot argued that Dukakis' "revolving- door prison policy" created more violence. It continued to tell viewers Dukakis wanted to do for America what he had done in Massachusetts. That same theme is seen in an ad that showed debris in Boston Harbor. Dukakis waited too long to respond to the negative ads, instead choosing to run feel-good, pro-America spots (bottom right.)
Among the qualities President Bush played up in his contest against Democratic hopeful Bill Clinton was his ability to lead. One ad (bottom left) featured images of war. The voiceover told viewers that the country is one dictator away from such violence and informed voters that Bush was the best candidate to sit in the Oval Office. Clinton's team had a strategy: keep one attack ad in front of viewers at all times. It also ran character ads that featured the young man from a small town called Hope shaking hands withPresident Kennedy.
Despite attacks on his character, President Clinton prevailed over Republican challenger Bob Dole. The Republican party blasted Clinton for statements he made on MTV. When asked whether he would inhale if he had the chance to do it again (top right), Clinton said he would. "Sure, if I could. I tried before," said a smiling Clinton. "Bill Clinton just doesn't get it," said the voiceover. Another ad blasted Clinton's performance on issues.