The Most Memorable Campaign Ads

With Election Day just a month away, you’re probably sick of being bombarded by political ads. Granted some of them are pretty good, like the Obama campaign’s use of Romney’s tone-deaf  rendition of “America the Beautiful.”

If you’re in Massachusetts like me, then you’re treated to the horrible non-topic of whether or not Elizabeth Warren used her background for advantages. But, understandably, the Senate races don’t focus on the wider issues completely.

The majority of political ads are horrible, and the rest are…really really horrible. But some squeak through and end up being fantastic ads. Apple pie, pick-up trucks, and girls picking flowers all around! It’s time honor this country’s most memorable campaign ads.

“Little Peace Girl/Daisy” (1964) – Lyndon B. Johnson ad, running against Barry Goldwater

Both the father of political ads and Godfather of political ads, “Daisy” really struck fear into viewers with the juxtaposition of a WMD and an innocent girl playing in a field of flowers. The tagline of the ad, “Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home,” is a haunting statement that certainly helped Johnson win in a landslide. Fun fact: that’s sportscaster Chris Schenkel on the call at the end.

“Convention” (1968) – Richard Nixon ad, running against Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace

Man, is this one scary. Playing up beat music one minute and then all of sudden doing having bizzarre cuts and renderings of Humphrey set to odd, distorted music? Creepy. This ad aired about a week before Election Day and continued the slogan of “Vote Like Your Whole World Depended on It.” The ad was certainly controversial, as it cut between the convention and powerful images from Vietnam and race riots. Hundreds called in to the network that premiered the ad, protesting its airtime.

“McGovern Defense” (1972) – Nixon ad, running against George McGovern

Not nearly as harsh the previous ads featured, this attack ad is simple, yet pretty effective. What’s so peculiar about this ad, is that it uses a quote from the very man the Nixon campaign attacked in the previous election. If they were using it to turn McGovern’s plan on itself, it would make sense, but the Humphrey quote agrees with the Nixon camp. The use of toy soldiers also undermines McGovern’s strategy, and really helps keep this ad’s tone stay relatively light-hearted.

“Bio” (1976) – Jimmy Carter ad, running against Gerald Ford 

Ah, the classic biographical ad. These type of ads appear everywhere and help introduce a candidate to the public. They usually run fairly early in the campaign and make the candidate just a blue-collar typical hard-working American. Let’s talk to his adorable old mother, and discuss how he’s the only one in his family to receive a higher education! This ad is so 70s with that music, I feel Red Forman’s going to make an appearance just to tell Carter where he’s going to put his foot.

“Prouder, Better, Stronger” (1984) – Ronald Reagan ad, running against Walter Mondale 

Nothing screams “America” like this 1984 Reagan ad. I mean, look at what images we see: people going to work, a farmer, a paperboy at his first job, white picket fences, a wedding, and plenty of American flags. How can this not make you feel good if you’re the average American? Now, it’ would certainly be a corny ad to run, but back then it was a perfect slice of apple pie.

“Bear” (1984) – Reagan ad, running against Mondale

Click here to view the ad.

Ad executive Hal Riney narrated this metaphorical ad, a golden voice for the Reagan campaign. It’s a very unusual ad, and left many people scratching their heads as to what was being implied. What the bear represented was the potential threat from the Sovient Union, which suggests Reagan will be ready for, which ties into the tagline “Prepared for Peace.” And man, does Reagan (or rather, that actor that plays…the actor) look cool facing off against that bear.

1988 – The Bloodbath between George Bush and Michael Dukakis

“The Harbor” / “Tank Ride” / “Revolving Door” / “Willie Horton”

Man, did the Bush campaign pile it on. Take your pick, there’s hitting home for Massachusetts residents with the Boston Harbor (still voted for Dukakis, being their governor and all) or Dukakis’ leniency on crime via the striking visual of “Revolving Door,” and the horrific crimes detailed in “Willie Horton.” And of course, the one that killed him, the pure goofiness of Dukakis in a helmet in “Tank Ride.” This battle showed that no attack should go unanswered, as people waited for Dukakis to respond, while he waited for them to disregard the commercials. He finally responded, but so late in the campaign, that the ads really stuck with the public, and helped cost him the election. This was certainly one of the more brutal campaigns, and Dukakis was the victim.

“Hope” (1992) – Bill Clinton ad, running against George Bush 

Bill Clinton’s bio ad is near-perfect, introducing us to the smoothest-talking president this country has ever seen. But of course, this ad is about humble beginnings, and what a perfect way to show that than through detailing Clinton’s childhood in a town called “Hope?” Throw Kennedy into the mix and this commercial gets even better for him. Throw in kisses from seniors and high fives from little girls, and this ad absolutely killed it. This is exactly what you want to see from a bio ad, and certainly what the voters wanted to see in 1992.

“Priority MD” (2000) – George W. Bush ad, running against Al Gore 

This ad is not a great one, but its inclusion is due to the controversy it kicked up. Political ad analysts claimed that the “RATS” in “BUREAUCRATS” was clearly displayed (by itself) during the text movement in the commercial. People suggest that this was intentional, and that the ad producers intentionally put that there create some sort of subliminal messaging. Conspiracy theories aside, this commercial got a ton of publicity because of the overanalysis, both good and bad.

“Windsurfing” (2004) – Bush ad, running against John Kerry 

Say what you will about the man whose campaign produced this ad, but you can’t deny that this commercial is pretty hilarious. The most effective part here is obviously the music, the famous classical song “Blue Danube” from Strauss. It’s such an entertaining commercial, and the music combined with the ridiculous visual of Kerry windsurfing helps lighten the mood, so the political facts don’t bog down the commercial. If you really look at the attack, it’s actual quite effective as well, and the “Whichever Way the Wind Blows” is a perfect tagline. Maybe the Obama campaign could take some pointers from this ad…

“Yes We Can” (2008) – Barack Obama ad, running against John McCain 

Despite already having done a fantastic job on the Clinton presidencies, campaign advisor David Axelrod really made a name for himself with the Obama campaign in 2008. There was so much good that came out of the campaign, the logos, the slogans, the ability to get people to vote, and that iconic Shephard Fairey image. But there was also tons of celebrity endorsements, and this one ad is sort of cheap when it comes to that. Yes, these artists, athletes, and actors are allowed to endorse a candidate, but people may be voting for someone now just because “it’s cool.” Still, this commercial is certainly effective, and celebrities aside, a lot of it comes from Obama’s prowess as a speaker.

“Dead Aim” (2010, WV Senate) – John Manchin ad, running against Ken Hechler 

*The embedding is weird for this video, so hit the “Next” button until you reach “Dead Aim.”

This man is a Democrat. It’s a little scary when he says “take on Washington and this administration” while he’s loading a gun. But really, what makes this ad absolutely so-bad-it’s-good, is that Manchin says he’ll take “dead aim at the cap and trade bill” and then actually shoots the bill with the gun he’s been prepping throughout the ad. Gotta love the protectors of the second amendment.

“I’m You” (2010, DE Senate) – Christine O’Donnell ad, running against Chris Coons

“I’m not a witch.” This is a phrase that should never lead off, finish, or be included in any campaign ad ever. And what is that behind her, some weird ghostly fog?? Way to go, Christine O’Donnell, way to go.

“Road We Traveled” (2012) – Obama ad

Finally, I’ll leave you this ad, which was aired before Obama officially knew who he was running against. A lengthy “trailer” for the upcoming election, this Tom Hanks-narrated ad pulls out all the stops to support Obama and the past four years. It’s basically a mini-documentary, a Rocky for politics, framed as a success story. But does it tell the real one? Maybe if Morgan Freeman narrated it, everyone would trust it more.


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