The Most Effective Political Ads Ever

Today's negative political ads began with a countdown from LBJ's 1964 "Daisy" ad. "10, 9, 8 ..."

This being a midterm election year, it’s hard to escape political ads. They’re everywhere—filling the airwaves, clogging your mail box, and littering the streets and sidewalks.

But are they effective?

They’re mostly awful. A bunch of misleading mudslinging. Personally, I can’t reach the remote fast enough to mute or fast forward through them. But one exception this year has been the refreshing, albeit Quixotic, campaign of blogger Mickey Kaus in his run for Senator Boxer’s seat in California. (Perhaps the reason Mickey’s ads weren’t annoying was because he couldn’t afford to carpet-bomb the airwaves.)

After blogging about advertising as propaganda, this seemed like a good time to revisit what are arguably the most effective political ads—both negative and positive—of any year.

The power of fear in advertising

During the 1964 presidential election, Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign ran the controversial “Daisy” ad. It aired only once, on September 7, 1964, during NBC’s “Monday Night at the Movies.” Although Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, was never mentioned, one nuclear bomb ad was enough to ruin his whole day—and bury his campaign in a landslide.

The Family Research Council writes, “They were determined to make Americans believe that Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for President, would get us into a nuclear war with the Soviets.” It also didn’t hurt Johnson that the news media replayed the ad over and over while pondering whether it was a “fair criticism” of Goldwater.

Created by agoraphobic art director Tony Schwartz and produced by Doyle Dane Bernbach, “Daisy” was the mother (godfather?) of all of today’s negative political advertising.

In the commercial, a precious little girl pulls petals off a daisy while counting to 10. The scene freezes as the camera zooms in and an ominous voice begins the countdown preceding an atomic missile launch. After a blinding explosion, the voice of President Johnson intones: “These are the stakes: 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.” An announcer finishes the spot: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.” Pretty subtle, eh?

The New York Times’ obituary for Schwartz points out, “The president’s speech deliberately invoked a line from ‘September 1, 1939,’ a poem by W. H. Auden written at the outbreak of World War II.”

“The Daisy,” Lyndon Johnson, 1964

The power of optimism in advertising

On the more positive side of political ads are two spots for Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign. Written and narrated by advertising legend Hal Riney and directed by John Pytka, the first spot is entitled “Prouder, Stronger, Better.” Now it’s better known as “Morning In America,” after the opening line, which is used both literally and metaphorically. It’s widely considered one of the most effective—and optimistic—political campaign ads ever made.

It opens with images of Americans heading off to work (in the morning, naturally) as Riney’s mellow voice suggests that Reagan’s policies have been responsible for the improvements in the economy since his election in 1980. The spot concludes by asking voters “Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”

“Prouder, Stronger, Better” (Morning in America), Ronald Reagan, 1984

Here’s the complete script:

“It’s morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. 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?”

The Riney-produced “Morning” ad won awards and praise from both political and advertising circles. “Morning in America” continues to be popular phrase and is currently used as the title of conservative talk-radio host Bill Bennett’s syndicated show.

The power of allusion in advertising

The second Reagan TV spot from 1984, “The Bear,” is a model of subtlety. The commercial never mentions Reagan’s opponent, Walter Mondale, the Soviet Union, or the threat of nuclear war. It didn’t have to. During the Cold War, everyone knew that the bear (if there is a bear) symbolized the Russians.

Ronald Reagan, “The Bear,” 1984

How effective were these political ads?

According to the FRC, “Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan of ‘Prepared for Peace’ struck a responsive chord with voters that year. LBJ won 44 states in his re-election bid in 1964. Reagan won 49 states in his 1984 contest.”

Although both won in a landslide, Johnson’s presidency ultimately ended negatively, suggesting that going negative can become a self-fulfilling or self-defeating strategy. Done well, an optimistic message can be the more powerful long-range political weapon.

Sometimes even celebrity endorsements are effective. While looking for the Johnson and Reagan ads, I stumbled across one from 1966 featuring John Wayne endorsing fellow actor Ronald Reagan. For lots more, check out the collection of historic political ads from the 1950s to the 1980s on Hulu.

Are there any recent or vintage political ads that have resonated well with you? Any that particularly turned you off? Brace yourself—we’ll be seeing a lot more as November gets closer.

I’m Mitch Devine and I proofed this message.



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