The 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 the evolution of modern presidential campaigning, which relied heavily on both free and paid TV media during the 20th-century to convey election messaging.
The 1968 presidential campaign marked a turning point in this process. The Nixon campaign was the first presidential campaign to devote the majority of its campaign budget to TV ads. An important monograph by Joe McGinniss entitled, The Selling of the President (1969) helps explain that revolution, but we can observe it in almost “real time” by re-watching some of the most important paid TV ads and broadcast TV moments below.
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. Also, in the second video clip, from the Smithsonian channel, take note of the elaborate preparations that Kennedy’s campaign undertook prior to his first debate with Richard Nixon in September 1960.
The 1960 contest produced a number of memorable innovations, including the beginning of Theodore White’s Making of the President series and also a ground-breaking fly-on-the-wall documentary film by Robert Drew called, “Primary.”
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.
Margaret O’Mara opens her chapter on the 1968 election with a description of the broadcast television moment that framed the outset of the race and what she describes as the beginning of the “fracturing of America.” Here are video clips of Walter Cronkite’s original February 27, 1968 CBS Evening News Broadcast on the Tet Offensive and also an oral history from Cronkite about that pivotal TV moment recorded in 1999. Then there is the full broadcast from President Lyndon Johnson that stunned the nation on March 31, 1968, as he announced that he would remain as president but withdraw from the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968. His remarks on quitting the presidential race begin around the 38 minute mark.
In her opening chapter on the 1968 election, O’Mara also narrates the tragic assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy and their dramatic impact on the campaign. Here is a video of Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, where he revealed the sad news of King’s killing to a stunned crowd.
Amid all of the turbulence and tragedy of 1968, the Nixon campaign revolutionized the use of TV commercials in presidential contests, relying on them more than any other previous campaign organization. These two notable examples directed by filmmaker Eugene Jones show some of the new techniques of advertising and also help highlight the shift in national climate since 1952.
The Nixon campaign was not the only one playing to the fears and resentments of American voters in 1968. Independent candidate and Alabama governor George Wallace offered his own version of right-wing populism (“law and order”) to help stoke support.