The 2012 election season is one for the record books. According to estimates published in AdAge, political campaigns and their supporters are expected to spend $9.8 billion on advertising, and over half of that on television ads. That total is up from $7 billion in 2008, largely because of a Supreme Court decision that allows unlimited political contributions from corporate donors [source: Delo]. More than ever, a small number of wealthy Americans are flexing their messaging muscle through attack ads created by so-called SuperPACs, or independent political action committees.
The modern campaign ad looks and feels like a horror movie trailer. Clouds gather and thunder rolls as the gravely voiced announcer cites sobering and often shocking statistics about the opposition. Then the clouds retreat and the sun shines on our hero, who will rescue America from the recession, foreign entanglements and, of course, "politics as usual."
Political ads weren't always this slick and sophisticated, but they've always been effective at driving messages home to the voting public. We're going to look at the top five most effective campaign TV ads from the past 60 years, starting with what many consider the very first presidential campaign to embrace the medium.
Believe it or not, there was a time when political strategists denounced the use of television to "sell" a candidate like "soap... or bubble gum." Those were the exact words used by George Ball, campaign manager for Democratic presidential hopeful Adlai Stevenson, when he saw the new brand of campaign ads being aired for Dwight D. Eisenhower [source: Schwartz]. Before 1952, presidential candidates only bought airtime on television to read prepared speeches. Then came "Eisenhower Answers America."
The ad campaign was the brainchild of Rosser Reeves, the Madison Avenue ad executive responsible for the iconic M&Ms slogan "Melts in your mouth, not in your hand." In a confidential Eisenhower campaign memo, Reeves introduced the concept of the political "spot," a 20-second commercial that would air in between two very popular TV shows [source: Wisconsin Public Television]. In those days, advertisers paid big money to sponsor shows like "The Jack Benny Program," but the commercial time in between shows was cheap.
The theme for the spots, Reeves decided, would be ordinary Americans asking Eisenhower questions about the economy, government corruption and the Korean War, the three topics of most concern to the nation. Eisenhower filmed his scripted answers in advance, then Rosser and his team recruited tourists outside Radio City Music hall to pose the questions on camera [source: Schwartz].
The resulting commercials look amateurish by today's standards: Eisenhower has a hard time transitioning between the cue cards and the camera. Still, the 40 spots helped solidify the former general and war hero's reputation as a tough, but fair politician who could clean up Washington and resolve the Korean conflict. Eisenhower won in a landslide, taking 39 states with more than 55 percent of the popular vote.
By 1964, when Lyndon Johnson was trying to hold onto the presidency against the Republican challenger Barry Goldwater, Madison Avenue had changed considerably. Gone were the repetitive slogans and fresh-faced actors making the "hard sell" for a particular brand. In their place were a new type of commercial, popularized by the Volkswagen Beetle ads of the early 1960s produced by ad firm Doyle Dane Bernbach. DDB relied on a "soft-sell" technique, showing the virtues of a product "lifestyle" with a sense of humor and self-deprecating wit [source: Wisconsin Public Television].
The Johnson campaign hired DDB to produce a series of ads, but the most famous -- even infamous -- is the "Daisy Girl" spot from 1964. The commercial opens with a bucolic scene of a young girl in a grassy field picking petals from a daisy. She counts as she plucks each petal, but when she gets to ten, the camera zooms in on the black pupil of her eye. Suddenly, we hear an almost robotic male voice counting down from 10. When he arrives at zero, the screen is filled with a ballooning mushroom cloud and the roar of a nuclear detonation. Innocence is obliterated with the push of a button, a fear that Johnson wanted to equate with the hard line nuclear stance of Goldwater.
It worked. Even though the ad only aired once, during an NBC "Monday Night at the Movies" broadcast, it had a tremendous impact on the national political conversation [source: TIME]. It's hard to measure the effectiveness of a single political ad, but LBJ ended up crushing Goldwater in the general election, winning 44 states.
Hal Riney could sell running shoes to a turtle. You might not know the name, but this iconic ad executive from the 1980s perfected a folksy, nostalgic, tug-at-the-heartstrings tone that he used to sell everything from Saturn cars to Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers [source: Elliott]. Riney often narrated his commercials himself, punctuating the documentary-style imagery with his gravely, straight-shooting voice.
Ronald Reagan was highly favored to win re-election in 1984, but Riney and his collaborators' "Morning in America" ad practically sealed the deal in primary season. The official title of the ad is "Prouder, Stronger, Better," but it's better known by its opening line, spoken in Riney's comforting baritone: "It's morning again in America" [source: TIME]. The ad shows idyllic scenes of smiling suburban families going to work, getting married and raising American flags while Riney recites upbeat statistics about employment and marriage rates [source: Schwartz]. The message is clear: America is in a great place right now. "Why would we ever want to return to where we were, less than four short years ago?" Riney asks.
Reagan eviscerated his Democratic opponent Walter Mondale, taking 49 states with 58.8 percent of the popular vote. Echoes of Riney's "Morning in America" campaign are heard in Chrysler's "Halftime in America" ads that debuted during the 2012 Super Bowl. Since Riney died in 2008, Chrysler went with another charcoal-voiced icon, Clint Eastwood.
Roger Ailes is best known as the president of the Fox News channel, but the conservative media mogul made a name for himself in the '60s, '70s and '80s as a savvy media consultant for Republican presidential candidates. In 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush was taking on a relative newcomer in Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Ailes' strategy for Bush was to paint Dukakis as a "tax-raising liberal" who was soft on crime [source: Schwartz]. Through focus group testing, Ailes figured out that voters were particularly appalled by a prison furlough program in Massachusetts that allows convicted criminals -- even violent ones -- to get free weekend passes.
Enter Willie Horton. On the night of April 3, 1987, William R. Horton, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence in a Massachusetts prison, was released on a weekend furlough. Horton broke into the suburban home of Angela and Clifford Barnes, stabbed and bound Mr. Barnes and raped his wife [source: Toner]. Ailes and Bush decided to focus on the "Willie" Horton case in speeches, repeatedly citing the tragedy as an example of Dukakis' weak stance on violent crime.
But it was an independent political action committee, not Ailes, which would create the most infamous ad of the 1988 campaign. The spot, which was broadcast only once, was designed to contrast the hard line stance of Bush (yes to capital punishment) with Dukakis and his furlough program. Over a menacing mug shot of Horton, the announcer details the heinous attack on the Barnes family and finishes with the line, "Weekend prison passes; Dukakis on crime."
The controversial ad was never supported or repudiated by the Bush campaign, which created its own furlough ad featuring a revolving prison door, but never mentioning Horton by name. In the election, Bush won 40 states with nearly 54 percent of the vote.
Barack Obama's 2008 run for president, in which he went from an unknown Illinois senator with an unusual name to a decisive victory against a veteran opponent, has been called a work of political genius. But it was an unofficial online "fan" video, not a polished campaign spot, that would emerge as the message of the moment.
On January 8, 2008, candidate Obama gave a speech in New Hampshire after coming in second to Hillary Clinton in that state's early primary. The speech was a rally cry to continue the fight and not lose momentum. In it, he re-introduced a longstanding campaign theme that he hoped would resonate with underdog Americans who have fought for hard-earned civil rights and workers' rights.
"For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready or that we shouldn't try or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people," spoke Obama. "Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can."
The message certainly resonated with pop musician Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. As Will.i.am explained in The Huffington Post, he had become apathetic to the political process, assuming that all candidates were the same. But when he heard Obama's New Hampshire speech about hope and change and optimism in the face of dire times, it clicked. It clicked so hard that Will.i.am started reaching out to friends in the entertainment world -- singers, actors and filmmakers -- to collaborate on a spoken-word "song" set to Obama's speech [source: Huffington Post]. After a marathon 48-hour recording session, Will.i.am released the "Yes We Can" video on his Web site. It exploded.
With no input or authorization from the Obama campaign, the video went viral, reaching nearly a million hits in its first two days online [source: Alexovich]. Again, it's hard to quantify the effect of a single political advertisement on the general election, but videos like "Yes We Can" undoubtedly helped to mobilize the unprecedented number of young voters who showed up at the polls for Obama.
For lots more information on political communications, presidential campaigns and political controversies, explore the links on the next page.
Other countries besides the U.S. have electoral college systems. HowStuffWorks looks at some of them.
Author's Note: 5 Most Effective Campaign Ads
Americans are more media savvy than ever. We know which newspapers, magazines and cable news channels share our particular political views and we are loyal to them. We distrust information that doesn't come from our self-approved sources and are quick to accuse the other side of bending the facts in their Machiavellian schemes. But what really amazes me is that even with all of the headlines about Super PACs and the influence of big money on elections, we're still so easily influenced by political attack ads. Why do negative accusations stick so easily to our brains? And how can we prevent ourselves from becoming pawns in a cynical marketing game? Watching these ads from the past 60 years of American politics didn't give me much hope that anything is going to change in the future.
- Alexovich, Ariel. The New York Times. "Obama Supporters Sing, 'Yes We Can.'" February 4, 2008 (May 31, 2012.) http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/04/obama-supporters-sing-yes-we-can/
- Delo, Cotton. AdAge. "Super PACs Could Drive Total 2012 Election Spending to $9.8B." March 7, 2012 (May 31, 2012.) http://adage.com/article/campaign-trail/total-2012-election-spending-hit-9-8b/233155/
- Elliott, Stuart. The New York Times. "Hal Riney, Adman for Reagan and G.M., Dies at 75." March 26, 2008 (May 31, 2012.) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/26/business/media/26riney.html
- Schwartz, David. Museum of the Moving Image. "Never Had It So Good" http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1952 (May 31, 2012.)
- Schwartz, David. Museum of the Moving Image. "Prouder, Stronger, Better" http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1984 (May 31, 2012.)
- Schwartz, David. Museum of the Moving Image. "Revolving Door" http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1988 (May 31, 2012.)
- TIME. Top 10 Campaign Ads. "Daisy Girl" (May 31, 2012.) http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1842516_1842514_1842649,00.html#ixzz1voVAhVM1
- TIME. Top 10 Campaign Ads. "Morning in America" (May 31, 2012.) http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1842516_1842514_1842575,00.html#ixzz1vogavRjI
- Toner, Robin. The New York Times. "Prison Furloughs in Massachussetts Threaten Dukakis Record on Crime." July 5, 1988 (May 31, 2012.) http://www.nytimes.com/1988/07/05/us/prison-furloughs-in-massachusetts-threaten-dukakis-record-on-crime.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
- Will.I.Am. "Why I Recorded Yes We Can." Huffington Post. February 3, 2008. (June 1, 2012.) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william/why-i-recorded-yes-we-can_b_84655.html
- Wisconsin Public Television. The :30 Second Candidate. "Historical Timeline: 1964" (May 31, 2012.) http://www.pbs.org/30secondcandidate/timeline/years/1964.html
- Wisconsin Public Television. The :30 Second Candidate. "From Idea to Ad" (May 31, 2012.) http://www.pbs.org/30secondcandidate/from_idea_to_ad/research2.html