10 Iconic Presidential Campaign Ads That Changed Political Advertising

Presidential campaigns have a history of producing memorable television ads that have helped sway public opinion and win elections. But many of the old rules of campaigning have been broken in 2016's decidedly unusual election season—most often by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who's so far eschewed the idea of producing influential political ads and leaned on free media instead.

Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, has dominated ad spending so far, swamping the GOP's candidate by a 15-to-1 margin. According to SMG Delta, Clinton and groups supporting her have bought $45 million in ads for the general election, compared with $3 million spent in support of Trump—none of which came from the Trump campaign itself.

While Trump may not be convinced, Clinton is a firm believer in the power of political advertising on TV, which dates to the medium's earliest days. The most memorable spots (think Reagan’s “Morning in America”) have tended to come from winning campaigns—but not always.

From inspiring and positive to brutally negative and even, perhaps, unfair, here are 10 of the most iconic presidential spots, from Eisenhower to Obama.


1952: Eisenhower Answers America

As TV exploded into the American home following World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first presidential candidate to effectively use the medium to win the White House. The “Eisenhower Answers America” spots created by Ted Bates and Company were simple—a voter asks a question, and Eisenhower responds, at one point turning from the questioner to the camera.

The ads were used in 12 key states in the weeks leading up to Election Day and focused on high prices, the Korean War and gridlock in Washington. It was the first time a campaign used short, strategic television ads instead of buying program-length blocks of air time.

The Museum of the Moving Image, noting the spots were created by Rosser Reeves, whose credits also include M&M’s timeless “Melts in your mouth, not in your hands” campaign, reports Reeves “convinced Eisenhower that spots placed immediately before or after such popular programs as I Love Lucy would reach more viewers, and at a much lower cost, than half-hour speeches.”


1964: The “Daisy” Ad

Perhaps the most famous political ad to ever run on television, Lyndon Johnson’s "Daisy" spot is blunt and unforgettable. It ran just once—on NBC on Sept. 7, 1964, a Monday night—but was later replayed in its entirety on CBS's and ABC's evening newscasts.

In the ad, which was created by Doyle Dane Bernbach and media consultant Tony Schwartz, a young girl picks the petals off a daisy as an ominous countdown is heard. It ends with a nuclear explosion and mushroom cloud meant to suggest Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, was too dangerous to be president. “Vote for President Johnson on Nov. 3,” says the somber narrator. “The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

As The New York Times wrote in its 2008 obituary of Schwartz, the ad “was credited with contributing to Johnson’s landslide victory at the polls in November.”


1968: “Laughter”

Tony Schwartz, who produced the "Daisy" ad, created another memorable spot four years later for Hubert Humphrey, who was running against Richard Nixon and his running mate, Spiro Agnew. In the ad, the camera pulls back slowly as a man laughs harder and harder until the shot reveals a television with "Agnew for Vice President" on the screen. The ad ends with a message: "This would be funny if it weren’t so serious."

While memorable, the spot fell short of its goal. Nixon and Agnew won 301 Electoral College votes to capture the 1968 presidential election.


1984: “Morning in America”

Ronald Reagan, who in 1980 asked voters the effective question “Can we afford four more years?” to dispatch President Jimmy Carter, produced one of the most iconic and positive ads four years later with "Morning in America," which told voters things were finally looking up. "It’s morning again in America," said the narrator. "Today, more Americans will go to work than ever before in our history … under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder, and stronger, and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”

The refreshingly optimistic ad helped Reagan get reelected in a landslide, picking up 49 of 50 states to defeat Walter Mondale.


1988: “Revolving Door”

Perhaps one of the harshest negative ads in all of presidential politics, the "Revolving Door" ad George H. W. Bush ran against Michael Dukakis is credited with severely damaging Dukakis’ campaign. Showing a revolving door set into a prison wall, the narrator says of Dukakis, "His revolving door prison policy gave weekend furloughs to first-degree murderers not eligible for parole. While out, many committed other crimes, like kidnapping and rape. … Now, Michael Dukakis says he wants to do for America what he’s done for Massachusetts. America can’t afford that risk."

That line was repeated in another memorable Bush ad, "Tank Ride," which showed images of Dukakis riding around in a tank wearing a helmet with his name on it, as the narrator lists military weapons programs Dukakis opposed.

After the election, a New York Times survey named "Revolving Door" the single most influential ad of the campaign, particularly among women, many of whom said watching the spot caused them to view Bush as "stronger on crime" and the candidate who would keep them safer.


2004: “Windsurfing”

George W. Bush produced this devastating ad against John Kerry by portraying the Democrat as a flip-flopper in an unusually effective way—he showed Kerry windsurfing and constantly changing direction with every change in the wind. "John Kerry. Whichever way the wind blows," the narrator says.

The ad had the secondary effect of showing Kerry in an unflattering light—not just in a bathing suit, but also as an elitist windsurfer.


2004: “Sellout”

Better known as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth spot, this series of attack ads on John Kerry led to a new entry in the political advertising lexicon: swiftboating, a verb now defined by the Oxford dictionary as targeting a politician or public figure "with a campaign of personal attacks."

The brutal ads featured former Navy colleagues of Kerry—each saying at the start, “I served with John Kerry"—attacking his character, accusing him of lying about his record in Vietnam and being untrustworthy and unfit for the presidency.

The impact of "Sellout" was amplified by media coverage as the ad dominated the news cycle in August 2004. Polls showed veterans viewed Kerry less favorably following the release of the Swift Boat ads.


2008: “3 A.M.”

Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign featured a memorable ad depicting sleeping children in the middle of the night. A phone is ringing, and the narrator asks parents who they want to answer that call at the White House in the event of an international crisis.

The ad spawned dozens of parodies, including the obligatory SNL skit, and has been used against Clinton since its release, most recently in 2015, when Republican Rand Paul accused Clinton of “missing the 3 a.m. phone call” on Benghazi.


2008: “Yes, We Can”

This spot for Barack Obama unveiled yet another new kind of presidential ad—a nearly four-minute spot that combines the candidate’s own words with the singing of pop stars and celebrities. The web spot turns Obama's speech in New Hampshire following the first in the nation primary, into a music video by will.i.am.

Uploaded in February, the song won an Emmy Award that summer. Describing its impact that year, the Huffington Post wrote the spot was "a perfect example of the types of content that never would have seen the light of day just four years ago—where could you have bought enough TV airtime to air a 4:30 television ad? How could you possibly have gotten enough nationwide exposure to make it possible?" With the widespread availability of broadband internet, people were no longer limited to watching campaign content on TV.


2012 “47 Percent”

Four years later, President Obama used a piece of undercover video to deliver a harsh blow to his opponent, Mitt Romney, portraying him as an uncaring elitist.

Romney had been recorded during a closed-door meeting describing Obama’s supporters as "the 47 percent" of Americans who were "victims" looking for handouts. They "will vote for this president no matter what. … My job is not to worry about those people."

The "47 percent" joined "Fired Big Bird" and "Binders Full of Women" as memes that dominated the election cycle and harmed Romney's image.

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