Understanding US History Through Political TV Ads

KennedyThe Living Room Candidate website, courtesy of the Museum of the Moving Image, has collected televised presidential campaign advertisements from 1952 to the present day. They offer a great window for understanding some key trends in US history since 1945.

Here is a pioneering TV ad from the 1952 campaign, presented in what was then popular movie newsreel style, for the Republican campaign of Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Think carefully about what the commercial is emphasizing –and also what it omits.

Compare that 1952 effort to this more polished, 1960 John F. Kennedy campaign ad, designed to invoke some of the more popular TV jingles of the 1950s.

Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) ad in the history of modern presidential campaigns appeared as a paid advertisement on TV only once –the so-called “Daisy ad” from 1964. Students should be able to explain what this ad was about, and why it was so powerful and controversial.

The Richard Nixon campaign in 1968 revolutionized the use of TV commercials in presidential contests, relying on them more than any other previous campaign organization. These two notable examples show some of the new techniques of advertising and also help highlight the shift in national climate since 1952.

The foreboding nature of those 1968 ads helps explain the strategy of calculated optimism behind this biographical short from the 1976 Jimmy Carter campaign.  What’s also especially useful about this effort is how it captures several political and social trends from modern US history.

In the 1984 presidential election, Ronald Reagan won 49 out of 50 states. This commercial, known popularly as the “Morning Again in America” ad helps illustrate the broad appeal of the reelection campaign –and the sophisticated selling techniques of modern presidential politicking.


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Understanding US History Through Political TV Ads — 2 Comments

  1. After Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigration during the 2016 presidential campaign, Jeb Bush called out his competitor for “dog whistle proposals to prey on people’s fear.” Trump may indeed be relying on dog whistle politics, a rhetorical strategy of coded appeals that mean one thing to a highly specific audience yet go undetected by the mainstream public. However, the use of veiled racial rhetoric is hardly a new phenomenon, especially within the Republican Party. Nixon’s call for “law and order” in his 1968 campaign advertisement also utilizes this tactic as part of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy, attempting to appeal to the color prejudice of the white South without offending more progressive audiences. While Nixon’s advertisement might include criminals of all races, references to “the wave of crime” would have a specific meaning to those with color prejudice who feared the black power riots in Watts, Newark and Detroit. Nixon’s success was followed by Reagan’s references to “state’s rights” at the Neshoba County Fair and his references of “welfare queens” or “young bucks;” similarly, George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad was meant to evoke fears of black crime. Trump may be engaged in dog-whistle rhetoric, but a look back to Nixon’s campaign in 1968 reveals that such schemes have long been a part of American politics.

  2. I find it interesting how the political ads seem to make a remarkable switch from mainly military-oriented and somewhat threatening in their hypotheticals to more positive and socially concerned following Nixon’s presidency (with the exception of Kennedy’s, which was clearly playing off of the feel-good vibes of late 1950s television, eventually ending with the image of his nice Catholic nuclear family). Jimmy Carter’s ad goes into great detail about him and his life, maybe trying to show that he had nothing to hide, unlike Nixon, who became much too confident in his ability to use his power for unethical purposes, eventually leading to his downfall and resignation from the Oval Office in one of the most embarrassing displays of political failure. While I don’t think it could be said that candidates felt the need to -be- more transparent, they definitely saw the advantages of -seeming- more transparent after 1974.

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