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The 20 Greatest Campaign Ads of All Time
by Phil Nugent
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.