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SPOTLIGHT: Sweeping Culture Daily

Primer: The Evolution of the Presidental Campaign Ad

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By Craig Hubert | This year campaign ads have aired on television over a million times, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, the most ever for a presidential election. This is staggering for a number of reasons: one, more than a billion dollars was spent on ads this year, half of that was used for attack ads; two, do these ads even make a difference? What we’re positive about is that campaign ads have become more manipulative, adapting the techniques of modern advertising, music videos, and Hollywood movies, all in an attempt to propel their candidate to the Oval Office. Using The Living Room Candidate, an invaluable resource provided by the Museum of the Moving Image, ARTINFO presents a primer on the evolution of the campaign television commercial, from its relatively simple beginnings to its complicated present.

1952: War hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, running against Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, aired a series of ads in which he answered the questions of the common people. Here, he responds to a legitimate question about political “intentions” with a strange anecdote about a bus driver running into a ditch.

1964: Created for Lyndon Johnson by the advertising firm Doyle Dane Bernbach, known for their “conceptual, minimal, and modern approach,” “Daisy Girl” is probably the most famous campaign commercial of all time. It aired only once, but was talked about for the entire campaign. You also begin to see the influence of Hollywood, with its innovative sound work and quick cut editing.

1972: This Nixon ad creates an interesting counterpoint. Though the message is little more than, “these kids are too damn loud,” the use of sound, notably the switch from “youth” music to “patriotic” music in the middle of the ad, along with quick editing techniques, creates a feeling of suspense before giving over to longer shots of Nixon.

1980: The dramatically lit Oval Office, the slow, deliberate camera pushing in toward the president, who is so hard at work he doesn’t even notice the film crew standing all around him. Jimmy Carter is a very serious man, people. The ad also looks like it could have been an outtake from a sexy Brian De Palma film.

1988: Is this elaborately staged ad for George Bush the first to use an original song? No one’s sure, but it could easily double as a commercial for Jordache Jeans or Hair Club for Men. Also, notice the complete lack of any person of color. This could air as a sketch on “Saturday Night Live” today and get laughs.

1996: As we saw with Bush and Carter in the previous videos, by this point campaigns had done away with using non-staged footage of their candidates. This Clinton ad combines slick, colorful images of the then President, set up for the camera, against unflattering, black-and-white news footage of Bob Dole.

2004: Maybe the political commercial ever? Campaign ads go from using the techniques of the advertising world and Hollywood to meta-commentaries on pop-culture. This Bush ad, attacking John Kerry, riffs on Austin Powers and is (sort of) funny?

2012: Comedy from the Obama campaign. Using Romney’s tricky history with facts, they crafted this commercial, using humorous editing beats, to make him look like a joke.

More than ever, the “approved” campaign ads are only one slice of the campaign’s television presence. Since television has moved to the internet, so has the campaign commercial, and with it we have the flood of celebrity endorsements, along with the voter-made, and sometimes scary unofficial clips. We also must give special credit to those who, before the candidates are even set in stone, made campaign videos that we’ll never forget (we’re looking at you, Herman Cain). We predict that in four years, each candidate commercials will just be viral clips featuring them doing whatever the 2016 version of “Gangham Style” is.

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