The 20 Greatest Campaign Ads of All Time

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20. "Ike for President", 1952

1952, the year Ike met Adlai, was the first year that American presidential candidates went in for TV advertising. It was a one-sided battle: Adlai Stevenson refused to appear in any of his own ads, decreeing that to do so would be beneath his dignity. As a result, he get credit for inventing the mass media-age concept of the snooty elitist who thinks he's too good for us, and come Election Day, we'll show him. By contrast, Ike often showed up in his own commercials looking as if he was hoping nobody else could smell whatever that stuff was on his shoe, but he was there. And even when he wasn't there in the flesh, his cartoons were better. Stevenson's campaign went in for grotesque, message-y things, like animated op-ed cartoons, some of them set in a classroom, f'chrissakes, whereas Ike was throwing a party, with elephants and stuff. When people look back fondly on the American past as a fun ride of kitsch, all smiles and bouncy tunes and no spinach or substance, this is what they're thinking of.

19. "Strom Thurmond", 1976

Both in 1968, and during the 1972 primary season before an assassin's bullet took him out of the running, the Nixon campaign was at least as worried about the independent candidate George Wallace as it was about its Democratic opponents. Wallace had zero chance of winning the presidency, but Nixon and his handlers recognized his raw appeal to embittered, racist voters who blamed civil-rights legislation for turning their world upside down. It was to prevent Wallace from siphoning off those votes that Nixon devised the "Southern strategy": wooing his voters with coded appeals to racist resentments. Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, simply didn't have the primal hatred that had been at the core of his old boss's attraction, and he found himself squaring off against that most confounding of creatures: a liberal, white, Southern integrationist from a poor, rural background. Solution: have the South Carolina Senator and diehard segregationist Strom Thurmond cut an ad in which he denounced Jimmy Carter as being "from the South" but not "for the South."

Thurmond's script hinged on Carter's lack of support for South Carolina's right-to-work laws. But by 1976, the old Dixiecrat was so solidly connected to one issue — keeping the black folks down — that no one in the ad's target audience could have missed the subtext. When Thurmond accused Carter of not being a real Southerner, he was really implying that Carter wanted to spend the defense budget hiring black guys to drive over to your house at night and sleep with your daughter. As if to atone, the Ford campaign also sponsored an ad starring Pearl Bailey, who praised the Prez for his "simplicity" and "honesty" but couldn't quite bring herself to ask the folks at home to actually vote for him. (The ad ends with her shrugging and muttering, "That's why I hope… I don't know… please think about it…")

18. "Mrs. JFK", 1960

John Kennedy had commercials starring Henry Fonda and Harry Belafonte, but his best booster may have been his Missus, who in her public appearances was eager to show that she wasn't just a pretty face: she was a pretty face who'd managed to retain some of her finishing-school Spanish. It may not be possible now to fully understand what a jolt it was for the country to see a future First Lady looking fairly hot while signing off with the announcement, "Viva Kennedy!" But Mamie Eisenhower must have had a funny feeling in her bones that her job description had just been rewritten.

17. "McGovern Defense", 1972

Real wonks love this Nixon ad, which dips into the toy chest to illustrate its point that George McGovern would gut the defense budget and wreck our ability to "negotiate for peace from strength." It uses basic, simple — okay, overly simplistic — imagery to hammer a message about the perceived difference between the two candidates into the viewer's brain. This is, theoretically, how it's supposed to work. As you may notice as we go along, it doesn't work this way all that often.

16. "Harold Ford", 2006

Though it's not from a presidential campaign, this attack ad on Harold Ford, Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from Tennesee, is of significant interest not just for its blatant racism (flirty-looking white woman plus black candidate multiplied by gratuitous mention of the Playboy Club equals one freaked-out electorate) but for the way that its goofy, "ironic" tone is clearly meant to protect the perpetrators from charges of racism. As with professional wrestling, the ad can be seen by real dumbasses as having addressed a legitimate concern, while more "sophisticated" viewers whose buttons have been pushed can take consolation in the fact that the people who made the ad are clearly kidding around — though if they don't really intend for people to associate Ford with porn filmmakers and orgies, what the hell is that stuff doing here, divorced from any serious reason to object to the guy? (For some of us, the really dumbfounding part of it is the implicit suggestion that the doughy white guy in the camouflage outfit might not have enough guns.) What's even more remarkable is that the RNC put the ad out itself, without bothering to invent some spin-off PAC to keep its own hands clean, as if they didn't think that they had any reason to be ashamed of it. Maybe they still think that: Ford, who was leading his opponent up until the ad hit the airwaves, wound up losing the race by less than three percentage points.

15. "Windsurfing", 2004

This one's not complicated, folks. The big knock against John Kerry was that he was a "flip-flopper", in sharp contrast to his opponent, a "decider" so stubborn in his devotion to even his most disastrous views that he wouldn't backslide on his opposition to having a fire extinguisher in the Oval Office if his hair caught on fire. And John Kerry liked to windsurf, the elitist French-faced bastard. When you windsurf, sometimes you go in one direction and sometimes you go in the other. Using footage of the windsurfing John Kerry demonstrating this very principle (to the accompaniment of that proven knee-slapper "The Blue Danube Waltz"), Bush adman Mark McKinnon composed an iconic image of John Kerry as someone trying to go in all directions at once. Of course, John Kerry is also said to enjoy a good game of football from time to time, and in football, one also finds oneself running first in one direction, and then in the other. But there was never any chance that McKinnon would make a version of this ad showing Kerry on the gridiron, because the real idea here was that nobody was going to vote for Kerry with a straight face after they'd seen his legs in shorts.

14. "Bio", 1976

13. "Journey", 1992

The short-bio form is catnip to candidates with hardscrabble backgrounds, preferably in a rural setting, with a support network of family members to contribute simple, homespun humor. (Rosalynn Carter: "People ask me every day, how can you stand for your husband to be in politics, and everybody know everything you do. And I just tell them that we were born and raised, and still live, in Plains, Georgia, it has a population of 683, and everybody has always known everything we did!") The Carter ad dates from a post-Watergate election when an appearance of truthfulness cut more ice than such issues as experience. In its insistence on the folksy things in life, you can see what made Carter appealing as a candidate, and more than a hint of what, once he was installed in the Oval Office, made him strike many as a lightweight, in way over his head (and yoked by blood to the cast of Hee Haw, for good measure).

The Bill Clinton ad was adapted from The Man from Hope, the longer filmed profile that played to great applause at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. In some ways, it brings the short history of political advertising full circle, by linking Clinton to John Kennedy, the first real TV-age president. It's also instructive to compare Clinton's ready-for-prime-time manner and delivery to the deer-in-the-headlights looks and wooden speech patterns of the politicians who cut commercials just forty years earlier. This may be a testament to Clinton's slickness, but it may also say something about a nation where much of the populace spends the work day silently rehearsing what they someday hope to say to Oprah.

12. "Really", 2000

In this anti-Gore spot, an unseen woman who, from the sound of it, can't look at the vice-president without thinking of her scumbag ex-husband, plays Mystery Science Theater 3000 with news footage of Gore on TV, sneering at him in a thickly sarcastic tone of contempt that really leaves a stain on the wall. "Re-inventing himself on television again," she gurgles, as if about to choke on the absurdity of it all, "like I'm not gonna notice!" Like a lot of attacks on Gore, the charges here levied include his "taking credit for things he didn't even do." And like a lot of those attacks, it singles out as an example Gore's taking credit for things he did do, such as the fact that, as the principal author of and spearheading force behind the Senate bill that ultimately led to the creation of the World Wide Web, he could rightly claim to having "taken the initiative in creating the Internet."

Misrepresenting an opponent's accomplishments was nothing new, of course. What made this ad so much a part of its time, and made it so much nastier than you could guess at from simply reading a description of it or examining the written text, was the sheer, ugly power of the voice-over, which could make you feel stupid for not thinking of Gore as a mealy-mouthed charlatan even if the accompanying footage showed him boasting of being a carbon-based life form. The whole point of the ad is not to attack Gore's positions or even his character, but to direct such a heavy dose of incredulous revulsion in the direction of this thing called "Al Gore" that susceptible viewers will feel like boobs if they ever give Gore the benefit of the doubt about anything at all. Consequently, it deserves to be regarded as the first real attack ad of the Fox News era.

11. "Willie Horton", 1988

You might think that the ugliest, most disgusting attack ads are created when two candidates with deeply held beliefs face off against each other in a heated contest for America's soul. Surprise! The most infamous case of a presidential campaign scraping bottom came in 1988, when George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, a pair of non-ideological career politicians and dullards — two guys who, in terms of temperament and probably also in terms of what they actually believed when neither was trying to appeal to a base of true believers they secretly regarded as nuts, had a lot in common — took it upon themselves to help voters tell them apart, perhaps by painting the other fellow as someone who likes to spring black rapists from prison and keep the car warm for them while they're terrorizing the countryside.

We have Al Gore to thank for first bringing the Massachusetts prison furlough program to the attention of Republican spinmeisters. Gore, who had read in a Wall Street Journal editorial that criminals had taken the program as an opportunity to run amok, used it to attack Dukakis in a debate during the Democratic primaries. Figuring there might be something there, Bush campaign trolls Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater started digging and decided that William Horton (as he was known before Ailes determined that "Willie" was a better fit for the image they were after) was just the mascot they wanted to tie to Dukakis. Horton, a convicted murderer who had raped a woman and pistol-whipped her fiance while on weekend furlough, became the star of an ad, produced by Ailes confederate Larry McCarthy through a Bush-connected PAC. The whole point of the ad was to flash Horton's feral-looking mugshot, described by McCarthy as "every suburban mother's nightmare," on the screen at the end. (Just to play it safe, McCarthy originally submitted the ad to TV stations without the picture of Horton and then added the mugshot after the stations had agreed to run the PG-13 version.)

As if to underline that the Bush campaign wanted to cash in on Horton while keeping the ad at arm's length, Ailes and Atwater also produced an "official" campaign ad, "Revolving Door", which seemed to address the same "issues" the Horton ad supposedly addressed but didn't include a close-up of a scary black man. In an almost touching display of cluelessness, Dukakis responded with his own ad, which proceeded on the assumption that there really was something going on here besides an appeal to racist paranoia. Nobody working for Bush was under similar delusions. "The only question," Ailes told The New York Times, "is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it."

10. "Tank Ride", 1988

Sometimes a campaign just drops a big ol' birthday present in its opponent's lap. In 1988, inspired by a photo op involving Margaret Thatcher and a Challenger tank, Dukakis visited a Michigan General Dynamic plant, strapped on a helmet, and tooled around the site for a while in an M1 Abrams. The idea was that he would look all manly and shit and lay waste to the by-then traditional Republican attacks on Democrats as not being macho enough to defend this great land, but he was widely accused of looking like Snoopy, and the footage of the tank barreling awkwardly about the grassy space with its turret spinning looked like an outtake from the strangest DUI arrest in the history of Cops. Greg Stevens, who produced this ad for the Bush campaign — presumably after seeing the footage on the news and picking himself up off the floor when his laughing fit had subsided — had only to tape together the choicest bits and tack on a deep-voiced narration listing all the reasons Dukakis was "soft" on defense. The "serious" voice-over is a beard for the real message of the ad, which is, of course, "Sweet mother of mercy, get a load of Governor Douchebag driving a tank!"

9. "Surgeon", 1996

This ad for Bill Clinton's re-election is an especially adorable example of a time-honored practice: using a bunch of cute kids to suggest that your opponent is Satan himself. "I know, I know," the ad says in the softest tone imaginable, "you don't really mind if nobody ever has the funding to find a cure for cancer — if you felt differently, you wouldn't be a Republican. All we ask is that you man up and look little Billy here right in his starry-eyed kisser and tell him yourself that you want to gut the education bill, and that instead of going to college, he's going to be spending his life asking people, 'You want to super-size that?' Go ahead, tell him!" The ad doubles as an effective attempt to destroy an opponent by linking him, as if by marriage, to a universally despised figure whom the opponent himself wouldn't cross the street to puke on. It must have been a banner day for Bob Dole when he woke up one day in 1996 and discovered that his first name was now "Gingrich." Dole himself had actually made great strides in his efforts to appear halfway human and even likable since the day when, twenty years earlier, as Gerald Ford's running mate, he'd snickered into the camera and calculated the number of lives lost to "Democrat wars." But as soon as the Clinton campaign turned him into "Gingrich-Dole", joining him at the hip to a fellow Republican whom Dole himself probably would have strangled if only he could have located his neck, he was done.

8. "Wassup 2008", 2008

This independently produced Obama ad is perhaps the most memorable, and certainly the funniest, spot anyone has come up with for the current election cycle. By using a much-loved eight-year-old beer commercial as its base, it pulls off a real comic coup while at the same time triggering viewers' memory synapses to make them feel, yes, things were a lot better eight years ago. And by connecting Obama to black-identified popular culture of the most mainstream kind, it humanizes him, and introduces just a trace of funk to his image, but in a way that only the most uptight racist bastard could object to.

7. "Nancy Reagan", 1980

When Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter in 1980, his handlers were intent on protecting his affable, aw-shucks image. They didn't want to risk it by having him personally respond to Carter's insinuations that he was, in actuality, a mean old thing whose idea of a fun night out would be to set fire to the orphanage and use a scope rifle to pick off any survivors. So instead, they unleashed Nancy Reagan to stick her disapproving head into America's living rooms and give us all a good tongue-lashing. She bawls Carter out for talking trash about her husband — "He is not a warmonger. He is not a man who is going to throw the elderly out on the street and cut out their Social Security." — and then, in a spirit of bipartisan cooperation, suggests that if Carter is so hard up for things to talk about, why doesn't he explain "why the inflation is as high as it is," and the thinking behind his "vaciliating, weak foreign policy." The ad, sprung on an unsuspecting world unused to seeing candidates' wives fight their battles for them, was smartly calculated to leave anti-Reagan viewers bobbing and weaving. It tells you everything you need to know about how the Reagans came to be the most effective good-cop, bad-cop act in American politics.

6. "The Bear", 1984

This commercial for Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign is something of a wonder. It manages to play up the Gipper's strong-against-the-Soviets image without actually invoking images of weaponry or soldiers or scary Russians, all of which had a tendency to muddy the old boy's grandfatherly appeal. My own favorite part of it, which nobody else remembers, is the disclaimer at the very end: "…If there is a bear." Given the fact that this part is read over a final image of a man staring right at the big hairy brown son of a bunch, it gave the whole enterprise, when encountered on late-night TV (perhaps after having had a few beers), a tenor more surreal than most Twilight Zone re-runs. Nostalgic reactionary George W. Bush just couldn't resist doing his own version of it, "Wolves", during his own re-election campaign in 2004.

5. "Laughter", 1968

As a rule, ad campaigns aimed at tackling a vice president aren't usually considered worth the trouble, but in 1968, Richard Nixon introduced America to the male, Greek Sarah Palin of his time: Spiro Agnew, a butt-stupid and gleefully crooked Maryland governor whose job was to hurl raw meat to the bigots and morons who wanted to hear the kind of vicious attacks on leftist protesters and "eggheads" — that was 1968 for "elitists" — that Nixon actually regarded as beneath his dignity as a rabble-rouser. This direct, to-the-point ad is a classic expression of pure dismay that anyone would ask you to even consider a candidate so patently unfit for the office Agnew was seeking.

4. "Eisenhower Answers America", 1952

This series of spots, in which Ike addresses the questions on the minds of average voters, is about as substantive as the commercials made for the 1952 race ever got, even though the General never got to actually make the acquaintance of the good people whose problems he seemed so interested in. He was filmed giving all his answers in one pop, reading off such lines as, "Yes, my Mamie gets on me about high prices!" After Ike was done for the day, he went home for a leisurely afternoon of listening to Mamie bitch at him about high prices, and a group of regular-looking folks were trooped in to be filmed reciting their questions to an open space. In most of the ads, Ike was all smiling jes'-folks charm no matter what horrors he was decrying, but interestingly, he adopted a stern, serious mien in the one above, where his interlocutor is a black man. We may never know whether Ike was told to seem serious in this one in anticipation of whom he'd be sharing the spot with, or if he was just grumpy after a long day's work and this was the one that was thought to go best with the black guy. But clearly somebody decided it would make sense for Ike not to smile while contemplating the situation of the American Negro. (Amusingly, John Kennedy would maintain a similar level of seriousness when he made his own version of this ad, in which the concerned black man was none other than Harry Belafonte.)

>3. "Convention", 1968

The trippiest major campaign ad of the late 1960s came, surprisingly, from Richard Nixon's camp. It opens with footage of Hubert Humphrey and the psychedelic nightmare that was the 1968 Democratic National Convention, so that it at first seems to be a slightly misconceived ad from the Democrats. Then war, violent protest, poverty and assorted miseries take over the screen while the Hump's constipated-potato face begins to gyrate in the frame like a yo-yo. The ad would premiere, a week before the election, during Laugh-In, the busy, hyper-edited comedy hour that was network TV's answer to the groovy decade. NBC was reportedly deluged with complaints from viewers who mistakenly thought that the ad was part of the show.

2. "Prouder, Stronger, Better (Morning in America)", 1984

In the 1984 campaign, Walter Mondale tried to tar Ronald Reagan as a scary, threatening, unstable figure through a series of commercials filled with images of guerrilla fighters, nuclear missiles and reminders that Reagan had not yet met any of the leaders of the Soviet Union during his watch as leader of the free world. But by the time those ads hit the air, Reagan had already set the tone of the 1984 race with a series of commercials that had begun running early in the year, before Reagan even had an opponent in the primaries. While images of newspaper boys, newlyweds and happy dads off to work unfurled across the screen, the familiar, folksy-yet-authoritative voice of ad man Hal Raney assured us that all this bounty was the direct result of Reagan's first years in office: "It's morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?" By the end of the year, it was clear that Reagan's team had better understood how images worked in the new, complacent yuppie era: people wanted to be reassured, not told that they had cause to worry, and they rather resented Mondale for trying to give them something to worry about. These commercials may be the best evidence in support of the culture critic Tom Carson's assertion that, in the '80s, it looked as if the '60s and '70s had just been the raw materials for building "a bigger and better '50s."

1. "Peace Little Girl (Daisy)", 1964

This ad, created by Tony Schwartz of the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency for Lyndon Johnson's re-election campaign, may have done more than any other in history to raise the stakes in modern political advertising. It opens simply enough, with an adorable little snookums in a field, picking the petals off a black-eyed susan (not a daisy, as was widely reported — truly, these guys had no shame) and counting, "One… two… three… four… five… seven… six… six… eight…" Then, just when you think that the commercial is a searing indictment of our educational system and the pitiful math skills of our young, an adult voice delivers a countdown, and the camera zooms in on the girl's eye just as the world goes up in a mushroom cloud. At this point Johnson badly misquotes W. H. Auden. ("To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.")

Designed to nail Johnson's opponent, Barry Goldwater, with an image as a scary warmonger who couldn't be trusted not to set off World War III, the ad was run by the campaign only on a single momentous occasion: on September 7, 1964, on NBC, during a Monday night broadcast of the forgotten 1951 movie David and Bathsheba. Then, when the ad set off all kinds of hell, the campaign did something very sly: they made a big show of pulling it from future broadcasts, knowing full well that the TV networks would cover the "controversy" by airing it on their news shows, where it would be seen by anyone who'd missed it the first time but heard about it since. And for free. This routine has since become a standard ploy, though it's been a while since any ad company made even a token show of regret. The ad itself has since been imitated and parodied by everyone from The Simpsons to Moveon.org.